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The Winds of Change
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern… Beautiful people do not just happen. - Elizabeth Kubler Ros
~ ~ ~
The mound of blue cotton blankets moved slightly as the bed’s occupant stirred. He tried to stifle the moan that escaped from his lips, but he failed miserably in the attempt. Gradually two sleepy dark eyes opened and blinked several times as his senses roused him into full awareness. Slowly his vision began to clear and focus.
The first things his eyes lit upon were the ceiling tiles above his bed. It seemed that they were always the first things that swam into his field of vision upon his waking each morning.
He frowned and heaved a heavy sigh of resignation at the sight of them. They were slightly yellowed with age, and there was several water stains on the tiles in the corner by the large window indicating that obviously there had been a leak there at some point in time.
The room was square … there were exactly twenty-two tiles to the width of the room, and twenty-two tiles to its length…he’d counted them that first morning he’d been transferred into this room almost three weeks earlier.
He was the lone occupant in the four bed pediatric ward in the small county hospital … no one ever came in to visit him or bring him a get well card, Well, Old Bill did make the trip down ten days earlier, but that had just been to break the news to him in person that they had found White Eagle dead in his camp from what appeared to have been a heart attack.
It had just been one more heartbreak to add to the list of tragedies that seemed to haunt the teenager’s life.
Of course the doctor came in each morning during his rounds, but he did little more than grunt his responses to any of the questions he had asked him.
Occasionally a nurse would pop in to do the obligatory vitals checks and administer his medications or drop off his meal tray, but for the most part they treated him with cold indifference. The nurses up in the ICU had been more attentive, but they were all business and he had been too sick to care back then anyway.
Up in this part of the state, who you were made a huge difference in the way you were treated.
Not all of the nurses were cold towards him; there were two nurses that were always unfailingly kind to him. His skin tone and his parentage made no difference to either of them, and on the days that either of them were scheduled to be his nurse, they always somehow managed to make sure an extra serving of pudding or ice cream made it on to his meal trays. And they would always make sure to leave behind old copies of National Geographic magazines or books they had commandeered from somewhere for him to read.
His favourite one so far had been the book on ancient Greek Mythology. He had found it interesting to read and not unlike some of the old legends his mother and White Eagle had told him about from his own heritage.
In the entire three weeks he had been sequestered in the four bed ward, no other roommates had been admitted… so he had always been alone with his thoughts and books.
There had been plenty of other children admitted during that time - - a couple of them had even been teenagers like himself, but they had all been white children and had had the privilege of either being placed into private or semi-private rooms. It seemed none of the parents had wanted their children housed in the same room with that “filthy breed” from the reservation.
He scoffed with indignation at the thought of it. It was 1966 for heaven’s sake… what did they think would happen? Did they think his swarthier skin tone would rub off onto their precious lily white offspring? It was hard to believe people’s thinking could still be so backward in this day and age. But sadly it was.
So here he had sat for the last three weeks, bored and in pain. The dull ache in his shoulder and arm still woke him up on occasion, but thankfully his head no longer hurt, and the pneumonia was now almost a thing of the past as well.
In fact the doctor had informed him the day before that he was going to be transferred back to the reservation clinic for the final two weeks of his recovery. That was where his cast would finally come off his arm and the shoulder brace would be removed.
The arm had been a bad break and had been slow in healing. The force of the baseball bat had shattered his forearm and broken his shoulder as well as his collarbone and five of his ribs. The collarbone and his ribs were fine now that they had had seven weeks to heal, and his shoulder was now almost healed and just a bit sore, but the cast on his arm would have to remain there for another two weeks before it could be removed for good.
It had been seven weeks earlier when he had been attacked with the baseball bat, and nearly killed. For the first four weeks he had been in the ICU hovering between life and death. He had been in a coma for the first three weeks and had been heavily sedated as he battled pneumonia for a week after that, and so his memories of his days in the ICU were sporadic at best.
It hadn’t been until he was deemed well enough to be moved to the pediatric ward room here on the third floor that they had scaled back on the pain medications. It was then his mind began to slide the events of the whole incident back into place for him.
By all accounts he was lucky to be alive. He had been more dead than alive when Old Bill had found him nearly beaten to death in his grandfather’s wood shed. For those first three weeks, no one was sure he was even going to survive his long list of injuries, which included the broken arm which had shattered when he had instinctively raised it to shield himself in defense, and so consequently it had taken the brunt of the initial blow.
He had also suffered the other breaks in his shoulder, collarbone and ribs…one of those broken ribs had punctured a lung. But the most serious of all the injuries had been the fractured skull. Luckily, thanks to his arm shielding it, the blow to his head had only been a glancing blow… but it was still hard enough to fracture the skull and put him in a coma for the better part of a month.
Then to top it all off, he had developed pneumonia two and half weeks into his recovery. And so here he was, seven weeks later, about to be transferred back onto the reservation clinic. And finally two weeks after that, he would be returned as a ward into his grandparents’ care once more.
Although no one could prove it had been the grandfather that had inflicted the injuries to him, there was little doubt in Old Bill’s mind about who had done it. But because of the old tradition of the “shoot, shovel and shut up” attitude that prevailed on the reservation, no one held out much hope for any justice unless Johnny accused the old man… and even then the old man would deny it, and Johnny would not be believed.
He was only a half breed, and so he was shunned by most of the local whites in the town as well as the Natives on the reservation. He was loathed by both sides in equal measure. That was just the way of it up in these parts.
Even if he told the police it had been his grandfather that had done this to him, he knew his grandfather had at least a dozen friends who would give him an alibi and swear he was with them someplace else at the time of the attack.
No, there would be little point in trying to seek justice. What he needed to seek most was escape… freedom from this hell hole he had been forced to live in ever since his parents had been killed when he was ten years old.
At least once he had been transferred back to the reservation clinic this afternoon Old Bill, the ranch foreman, would be close enough to visit him regularly…maybe even the ranch owners, Vaska and Stojce, would come visit him too. After all he had been working for them on and off since he was twelve.
Stojce had been his father’s boss, and had been good friends to both his mom and dad right up until the night his parents had been killed.
The older couple had always been kind to him for as long as he could remember, and had turned a blind eye … even when he began to skip school and started doing odd jobs around the ranch for money. It turned out that he was just as skilled with horses as his father had been. In fact, he was a natural born horseman.
The clattering of the breakfast trolley coming up the hallway brought him back from his musings, to his present situation.
He lay there for a few seconds longer just staring up at the yellowed tiles, trying to decide if the discomfort from his full bladder could be put off until after his breakfast arrived, or would the pressure win out and drive him to leave his warm cocoon and make his way into the bathroom before then.
In the end, his bladder won out. He shifted his heavily casted arm off the pillows that supported it, and tried to ease himself up into a seated position, so he could swing his legs out from under the blankets in order to get himself across the room and into the bathroom.
It took a bit of doing, but with several awkward movements and the odd bit of groaning, he finally managed to get his body into a standing position, and he slowly shuffled across the floor into the bathroom.
By the time he was finished, he found his breakfast sitting on his tray beside his bed. He smiled as he saw the extra glass of milk and a cinnamon bun on the edge of his plate of pancakes and sausage. There was also another National Geographic featuring the Alaskan wilderness sitting on his bed. That meant that either Angie or Yvonne was going to be his nurse for his final day here… and for that at least, he was thankful.
~ ~ ~
It was later on in the afternoon and he was sitting in the chair by the window, waiting for the ambulance that would deliver him back to the clinic on the reservation. He was wearing the second hand pajamas and tattered blue robe someone had dropped off from the charity barrel from one of the local churches. He had no other possessions with him. In fact all his worldly goods, which consisted of his necklace and a small tin box with his stash of hard earned money in it, were still hidden beneath the floor boards in his grandparents’ woodshed, where he slept on an old Army cot.
He had been waiting for over an hour, when the door quietly opened and Angie’s head appeared through the doorway.
“Hey there Johnny, I was hoping to catch you before you left. I have a going away present for you… it’s from both me and Yvonne,” the nurse said with a sad smile. She handed the dark haired boy a neatly wrapped package and stood back to watch him open it.
“For me?” Johnny asked in amazement.
Getting gifts was almost unheard of in his world… at least since he had been orphaned. Once Old Bill had given him some comic books for his birthday and Vaska had made him a heavy sweater one year for Christmas… but those occasions were few and far between.
The pretty young nurse nodded and motioned for him to open it up.
Johnny smiled shyly as he removed the wrapping paper, but the smile instantly grew from shy to joy as he spied the contents of the package.
It was a brand new copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology. It had been the book he had spent all one week enjoying when he had first arrived in the ward room.
Yvonne had brought it from home for him to read. It had belonged to her brother, and she had borrowed it to help him pass the time. But this copy was brand new.
Johnny looked up with moist eyes, and quietly thanked his benefactor. “Thanks Angie… and thank Yvonne for me too please. I guess she’s not working today huh?”
“No Johnny, she isn’t, and it wasn’t until this morning that I found out you were leaving us today, so I had to run out to my car and wrap it quickly. I hope you remember us whenever you read it.”
“I’ll remember you even when I’m not reading it. You and Yvonne have always been so good to me. I want to thank you for that,” he replied.
Angie reached into her pocket and pulled out a chocolate bar and slipped it into the pocket of Johnny’s robe.
“This is for later…you can have it for dessert after your supper tonight,” she said conspiratorially.
The truth was she doubted the meals at the clinic would be up to much… especially as far as Johnny was concerned.
He was about to tell her that he would divide the bar in half so he would have some left for tomorrow, but before he could speak the door opened up and the stern, taciturn head nurse entered into his room with an orderly pushing a wheel chair.
Any further conversation was cut off, and so with a final meaningful glance, one of the few people outside of the ranch that had shown him some kindness vanished from his life forever. He clutched the book closer to his chest for a moment and then he quickly slid it beneath the folds of his robe.
After a quick final examination by the doctor, he was whisked away into the waiting ambulance to be returned to the reservation clinic to finish out his recovery.
~ ~ ~
Dawn was just breaking over the horizon, and the first rays of the sun began to blanket the earth with the promise of a bright new day. The early morning autumn winds were refreshingly cool and clean, the air smelt sweet and full of hope. It was scene that invoked the feeling of a fresh new beginning… and it was exactly how Johnny felt as he looked out the open window of the reservation clinic that morning.
The dingy dull walls of the small room he was in could not dampen his spirit that day…for today was the day he would get the cumbersome cast off of his arm, and tomorrow… well tomorrow was going to be the first day of his new life, because Johnny had made a decision.
Johnny looked around his room in the clinic until his eyes fell upon the only other patient lying in the bed across the small room. It was one of the “ancients” as the younger children on the reserve liked to call them. He had overheard the nurse say that he was 97 years old, and at this point in his life he was totally blind and partially deaf. After spending an entire weekend on a drunken bender, he had fallen and broken his arm and knocked himself out.
He had no one left to care for him and so he had found himself brought here.
In days of old, the man would have gone out into the wilderness to await his journey into the next world… but modern laws had stripped him of his right to die in the way he considered to be honourable. Now he just lay there, a worn and used up alcoholic…dejected, forgotten and waiting for the end to come.
As a rule you did not see the ancient generation come to the clinic. Most of the very oldest generation remembered how it was before. That was especially true of those who had lived life as young children before the days of reservation life, back in the dying days of the 1870’s.
They tended to stick to the traditional medicines as they often mistrusted everything about the white mans’ ways.
Although the old man could not see, and barely hear, Johnny knew by his movements that he could sense Johnny’s presence in the room and that he was aware that he was not alone in the clinic… but the very fact that he was blind was what Johnny had decided accounted for the fact that he did not look upon him with disdain or reproach. The week before there had been a younger man in his twenties in that bed, and he had made it clear that he held Johnny with nothing but contempt. Whenever he had looked in the man’s direction, Johnny could see the scorn and derision written on his face.
When he had been a patient at the hospital in town, Johnny’s skin had been too “red” for those around him… but here at the reservation clinic, just the opposite was true… here his skin was too “white”.
It seemed that on this matter, Johnny just “couldn’t win for losing” as the old axiom went.
The morning of the attack had been on August 28th …his sixteenth birthday. Johnny now understood that it had been largely precipitated by the fact that somehow his grandfather had gotten wind of his plans to run away and live with White Eagle now that he was officially sixteen and could legally quit the reservation school.
The timing of the attack had also reinforced some suspicions that Johnny had harboured in the back of his mind that the only real reason his grandfather had not been more vicious in any of the previous beatings was because of some sick perverse joy he seemed to derive out degrading and controlling Johnny’s existence. The older Johnny got the more irascible his grandfather became and the intensity of this last beating made Johnny begin to fear for his life.
True enough Johnny was still small and slight for his age, but he was beginning to have that growth spurt that most young men have as they move from adolescence into adulthood… and Johnny had already grown two inches in the last six months. Soon he would be big enough to fight back and too strong to control.
The old man hadn’t been prepared to have the job of raising his grandson forced upon him. It was only a quirk of fate that had left Johnny an orphan in the first place. Usually his mother remained at home on their horse buying trips… it was usually just a father and son outing. But on the day of the accident, his mom had decided to join her “men” on their trip, and it had been her and his father that had died, while young Johnny had survived.
His grandfather had never forgiven Johnny’s father, who was a white man, for running off with his daughter and marrying her. Then to top it off he had went and conceived a half breed son with her.
Beating, degrading and forcing the boy to do menial tasks around the house was just the way his grandfather used to vent his anger and get revenge for the death of his daughter, and show his disgust with regards to his half native status. To his grandfather’s way of thinking there was only Native and white, and in his eyes, Johnny was white, and he did nothing but bring about shame and disgrace upon the family.
So taking his anger out on Johnny was how he released his pent up frustrations. And that’s the way it would continue to be until Johnny grew too big to beat.
Johnny’s biggest fear was that once he became too big to beat, his grandfather might try to get rid of him for good. This last attack had confirmed that solidly in Johnny’s mind… in fact he was certain that his day of reckoning had finally come.
Unbeknownst to Johnny, it had also been a clear affirmation of that fact in the minds of Old Bill, White Eagle and Vaska and Stojce as well… It became crystal clear to everyone on that day that if Johnny survived this attack that he could not return to the reservation.
~ ~ ~
Johnny’s original plan to go live with White Eagle until he turned eighteen; “at which time he could be hired on full time at some ranch far away from the reservation”; had been thwarted when the old man had died.
As much as Johnny had become skilled in outdoor survival, he knew that Montana winters were harsh, and the prospect of surviving in the wilderness on a permanent basis in such punishing winter conditions on his own without the guidance of White Eagle, was a daunting thought for the sixteen year old.
And being all alone in the area also meant that he was a sitting duck for his grandfather or any of his cronies on the reservation. No-one on the reservation would have ever dared to come after him or confront him when he was with White Eagle… but without White Eagle’s protection, his life was worth very little in this part of the state.
Johnny had gone over his predicament a hundred times in his mind in the last two weeks. The teenager was pragmatic enough to see the situation for what it was. To his way of thinking his options were limited.
His original plan of staying with White Eagle had now vanished like the early morning mists that hung over the lake. But that didn’t mean he had to return to his grandparents’ home.
As things stood now, there wasn’t much of a choice here. He knew that if he stayed here, then his life would wind up in one of two scenarios.
To let life continue on as it had for the last six years could very well portend his early death…and even if he did somehow miraculously survive… what then? His prospects would be dismal.
Would he just stay here until his spirit and resolve withered and soul slowly died? Would he end up just perpetuating the vicious cycle of abuse and alcoholism? Would he let himself sink to his grandfather’s level?
If he went by the predictions of the anthropologists that descended upon the reservation each summer, then that was to be his lot in life. That was how he was supposed to end up according to their rules of order. But luckily it was a pretty rare occurrence for John Roderick Gage to do what others said he was supposed to do. He knew that his heritage didn’t necessary have to portend how is life would turn out.
The last six years of his life had been a living hell, but even despite how badly he had been used, Johnny knew that it wasn’t how it had to be. He still remembered a time in his life that had been full of love, joy and feelings of safety.
His memories of the years he’d had with his parents were magical in his mind, and he wanted that kind of joy again. He knew that if he could just somehow escape, that he could find himself a better life…that he didn’t have to conform to the destiny that some rich suit who had no real idea about life on the reservation, said he was supposed to accept.
Johnny looked over at the old man in the bed across from him and shook his head sadly. It served to strengthen his resolve not to become that man. He didn’t care what those bloody anthropologists’ predictions about his future were. He was going to get out… to do better. He deserved better than that.
He knew he was better than what most others saw him as… and he sure as hell wasn’t going to end up just another tragic statistic or even worse, another sad footnote in one of those anthro’s books… push had finally come to shove and the time to leave Montana had arrived.
Johnny lay back in his bed and went over his plan one more time in his head; he wanted to make sure he didn’t screw this up.
~ ~ ~
Sixty seconds in a minute… sixty minutes in an hour, twenty four hours in a day.
It had always been that way… but today the slow passage of time seemed interminable to the teenage boy in the bed.
The ticking sounds of the second hand on the clock reverberated off the painted plaster walls with a hollow echoing sound.
Its repetitious and monotonous rhythm might have lulled Johnny to sleep on any other day… but today he was too emotionally charged up, too full of nervous energy to sleep.
He had had his final check-up over an hour ago. The cast had been removed after lunch and Johnny had had a final x-ray taken of his shoulder and arm. The doctor had at that point declared the entire limb to be fully healed.
After one last listen to his lungs, the doctor had satisfied himself that they were clear and free of any trace of infection. With a final admonishment to go easy on the newly healed limb, he had signed the papers giving the nurses permission to release Johnny in the morning.
With that last task out of the way, his grandmother had been called and arrangements had been made for her to come and collect Johnny sometime after ten the next morning. But Johnny had every intention of being long gone before the sun cracked over the horizon the next morning.
The supper trays would soon be delivered, and then would come the final countdown until Johnny made his escape. He looked at the wall clock again and sighed. It was only a quarter to five.
Time was such a subjective thing. Depending on one’s perception and situation, it could either be a blessing, or a curse, because time was a double edged sword. Sometimes it wielded its power like a reckless child… acting capriciously, heedless to the victims it ravaged in its wake. It could be relentless and unforgiving, marching along whether you were ready for it or not.
At other times it seemed to barely creep along. It all depended on the circumstances. If one was having an enjoyable time, it could speed by at the speed of light…but if you were waiting anxiously, it could slow to a crawl… but whatever the situation, time still moved endlessly forward.
Johnny looked at the clock, and was dismayed to see the big hand had only advanced by two minutes since he had last looked. The rhythmic sounds seemed to actually slow down the more he watched the hands on the clock…at one point he actually had to look a second time, just to make sure that the hands were even moving at all.
Johnny fidgeted restlessly, partly in excitement and partly in trepidation. Still the hands on the clock continued on their tedious rounds as the seconds ticked off, each click moving him one step closer to his final escape.
Finally at five o’clock the evening meal trays were brought in to the only two patients in the clinic; not that it was much of a meal. As Johnny looked down at his supper, he discovered that today’s bill of fare included some kind of mystery meat that sat in a greyish-brown lump at the top of his plate. Beside it sat a clump of potatoes that had been obviously made from a box of instant flakes; they were overly dry and were covered with a coating of congealing gravy. To round out this gastronomic work of art was a small serving of under cooked carrots. This was served up with a slightly stale dinner roll, an apple and a small wax carton of milk.
As unappealing as it was, Johnny knew it may be the last meal he’d have for a few days while he was on the run, so he forced himself to choke it down. He slid the dinner roll and the apple underneath his blankets. He had also saved the banana and the packet of crackers that had been served with his soup and sandwich at lunch. Hopefully he would come across some orchards on his journeys where he could hopefully find some more apples or pears.
Johnny watched as the old man shoved aside his tray and rolled over and went back to sleep. It had been that way for two days. The old Indian was starving himself in an effort to hasten the end. No one at the clinic seemed to try and stop him… in fact no one really seemed to care period.
He was old and worn out and used up, and like Johnny who was only referred to by the derogatory term of “that breed,” he was considered an “expendable segment of society” as far as the clinic staff were concerned. Hell Johnny was surprised they even remembered to bring them three meals a day … such as the meals were.
Johnny could hear the clattering of the meal trolley coming down the hall to collect their dishes, so he quickly jumped out of his bed and removed the apple, the roll and the milk from the now sleeping man’s meal tray and hustled back to his own bed, where he slid them with the rest of his stash.
He wouldn’t be able to stop and fish, as he intended on travelling non-stop until he reached his own version of the “promised land.”
It hadn’t been until Old Bill had travelled to the hospital and informed him about White Eagle’s death that Johnny began to entertain the idea of running away. His plans to go live with White Eagle until he was eighteen were now a thing of the past, and Johnny had felt like he was at loose ends for several days when he had first heard the news. His overwhelming feelings of inertia had been born from both his grief at losing the man who had been the grandfather of his heart, and the pain from his injuries.
But once he had arrived back at the reservation clinic, the gravity of his situation began to become more and more of a reality, and his entire being was filled with a heavy sense of dread at the prospect of returning to the reservation. It never entered into his mind to lay a claim of abuse against his grandfather, he was fully aware of the futility of it. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, but it was the reality of life on the reservation even now in the nineteen sixties.
There would be no justice for Johnny here. And as much as the social workers and government agencies kept promising a better future for those on the reservation, Johnny knew that it wasn’t going to change anytime in the near future, and certainly not in time for him.
If he remained on the reservation he was condemning himself to an almost inevitable life of torment. The vicious machine of perpetual abuse would gradually swallow him whole, as he died a slow death. At sixteen he had matured enough to understand how life worked, and he was under no illusions about what fate awaited him if he stayed in Montana.
The time had come…push had finally come to shove, and it was time to leave… tonight. On one hand he was filled with an excitement about finally breaking free from all the discrimination and hardships of life on the reserve and the surrounding area.
But on the other hand, making a final decision to head out on his own, without having Old Bill, White Eagle or the ranch owners to fall back on, made him feel nervous and unsure of his ability to survive alone. But the fear of what would happen to him if he stayed far outweighed any trepidation he felt about leaving, and so he spent most of these last two weeks preparing to set his plan in to motion… Besides, he reasoned, for all intents and purposes he had been alone for the last six years anyway.
At first he had thought about asking Old Bill or the ranch owners if he could stay there, but he soon gave that idea up when he realized that he would still be too close to his grandfather. Besides as nice as the ranch owners and Old Bill had been to him, there were still several of the ranch hands that held onto their own biases and prejudices against his half native status.
He now understood that his grandfather held him partially to blame for his mother’s downfall and death, and it was Johnny’s fervent belief that his grandfather really did want to see him dead. To stay in the area would mean he would never be safe.
His grandfather held a lot of sway on the reservation, and he acted as if he was some sort of despot over his own little kingdom; which of course meant that Johnny was the disfranchised.
Johnny fully understood that eventually someone would get to him. It may not be this week, this month or even this year… but sooner or later his grandfather would have his revenge. Johnny himself had no desire for revenge against his grandfather nor the three men that had caused the accident that had killed his and his parents six years earlier.
As much as he loathed them, and yes …he even hated them, if he was being honest with himself, he wasn’t about to make any attempts at retaliation. He fully intended to follow the advice from the Bible that sat beside Old Bill’s bunk, and leave vengeance up to God.
No... The way Johnny had seen it, there was only one choice for him to make. He had to leave, and he had to leave tonight before his grandmother arrived to take him back to the reservation. As soon as the nurses did their final check of the evening on their patients, which was usually around eleven, he would slip out the window and disappear into the night.
He had already decided on where he would go. He had spent the last two weeks studying the map of North America he had found in one of the National Geographic magazines that Angie had given to him. He had decided that if he was going to live off the land, he would have an easier time of it in a climate where the temperature was more amenable, and not as harsh as the cold, snow covered northern states.
He had narrowed his choices of destinations down to three areas, those being Florida, Texas or Southern California. It was only after reading an article about the San Gabriel Mountains that he made up his mind to go to California. Besides geographically speaking, it was also the closest.
Although the clinic rules stated that the patients had to remain in their rooms, Johnny had spent an hour each morning and afternoon getting himself out of bed and walking back and forth across his room so that when the time came to leave, he would have at least some reserves built up.
To try and get up after such a prolonged period in bed and walk for miles across open fields or along highways and back country roads was a recipe for failure, as his legs needed to regain some strength and stamina. Not to mention that his body needed to get used to being upright again. So during the quiet times each day, Johnny had gotten out of his bed and began to walk around his room for one hour each morning and afternoon.
The first day he had only managed a few minutes of a slow walk, but by day six he was able to handle the entire hour with not too much difficulty. Thankfully his legs hadn’t sustained any injuries in the beating.
The clinic itself sat along the northern edge of the reservation and was a long, one story brick building that had been built just after the Second World War.
The building’s design was as such that it had been constructed in the shape of an uppercase letter T. One wing was used for outpatient services and emergency treatments.
The other wing served as a drop-in clinic and the doctor’s office. The third housed half a dozen beds where chronic and non-critical care patients were kept. Johnny and the old Indian were located at the far end of the left branch at the top of the T, in two of those beds. As luck would have it, Johnny’s bed was the one nearest the window that had currently been left open to let the unusually warm late October breeze in.
Once the lights had been turned out for the night, Johnny would slip out of bed and position his pillows under the blankets to give the illusion that he was still sleeping under the covers. No one did more than glance into the doorway at night time anyway. Neither he or the old man were in need of close monitoring at this point, so the nurses did little more than give a cursory glance through the door into the darkened room during the night.
Once he was outside, he would quickly make his way back to his grandfather’s house and, as soon as he was sure that it was quiet, he would slip into the woodshed and retrieve the only possessions he really cared about.
Stowed away under the floor boards behind the woodpile was the necklace his mother had given to him as she lay dying on the side of the road. It had been made by his father and given to her as a way to conceal the engagement ring his father had given to his mother the summer before they had run off to be married.
The other thing he wanted was the small tin box in which he had hidden all the cash he had saved up from working part-time on the ranch for the past couple of years. Inside the box he had almost ninety five dollars hidden away, and he was going to need that in order to purchase some camping supplies and fishing gear once he arrived at his destination. He’d also have to pick up the few meager pieces of clothing he owned that were stashed in a wooden crate behind his pallet in the woodshed.
Once he had gathered those few things, he planned to make one final visit to his parents’ graves to say good-bye, before he turned his back on his past forever. He wished with all his heart he could have said goodbye to Old Bill and the ranch owners… and even more than that, was his desire to visit White Eagle’s grave. But he couldn’t take the time… he wanted to be as far away as possible before first light.
Old Bill had stopped in several times to see him during the evening visiting hours during the course of the last two weeks. He had even gone so far as to suggest that Johnny come stay at the ranch, but Johnny had voiced his opinions on the matter to the old ranch hand and made it clear that he didn’t view that as a viable option.
Secretly Johnny suspected that Old Bill had figured out that Johnny was planning on doing a bunk out of the area the moment he was released. But if the older man had indeed had put two and two together and figured out Johnny’s intentions, he hadn’t voiced it out loud to Johnny. Johnny was going to miss Old Bill. In a lot of ways he had become like an uncle to the teenager.
Johnny lay back on his pillows and decided to try and catch a few hours of sleep after supper so that he would be well rested for his journey. He glanced up at the clock on the wall… It read ten after six…five more hours to go, Johnny said to himself, as he sank down into his pillows and closed his eyes.
The next time Johnny awoke, everything was dark. The sounds in the hallway were hushed, as he heard the door to their room being pulled quietly closed behind the nurse who had obviously just been in to do her final check on her patients for the night. He glanced up at the clock and was surprised to see that it was already quarter past eleven. The lights had been switched off and the old Indian in his bed across the room appeared to be sleeping.
Johnny lay still beneath the covers for another five minutes just to make absolutely sure that the nurse would not return, and then he quietly slipped out of his warm bed. He slipped the pillow case off one of his pillows and shoved his stash of food inside.
He had no clothes to put on, which meant he would have to make do with the second hand pajama’s and robe until he could get to his own clothes in his grandparents’ woodshed.
The slippers he had been given were about two sizes too large and would only impede his escape. It wasn’t a huge concern to him, as he was more than used to running outside in his bare feet anyway. He had no idea whether or not he had been brought in wearing his shoes when Old Bill had found him… he had no memory of that night or the four weeks that followed. Hopefully his shoes or at least his moccasins would be with his clothes.
He reached over to the bedside table and collected the few magazines he had managed to hold on to from the hospital and the book Angie and Yvonne had given him. The magazines joined the food in the pillow case, but the book was carefully slid into the pocket of the robe.
Once that task was accomplished, he carefully arranged the two pillows underneath his blankets until he was satisfied with how they appeared.
He quietly padded across the floor and slid the window open wide enough to accommodate his body size. He lowered the pillowcase over the sill and let it fall gently onto the ground below. He was just about to follow it out, when he heard a quiet voice call across the room.
“Maza sh kxan sh kxan doenakja hey?” (What time is it?)
Johnny turned around when he heard the old Indian that he thought had been asleep in the bed across the room speak to him. Knowing the old man was hard of hearing, Johnny crept over to his bedside so he could be heard without having to raise his voice too loud.
“Han hey pee… ohakab wikcemna akewazi,” (Night… after eleven,) Johnny answered.
“Doe key ya lay hey?” (Where are you going?) The old Indian asked him.
Johnny stopped and was amazed that even though he was blind, the old man somehow knew that he was leaving. He thought for a moment before he somberly answered the old man… “na GXee oh wa key tay.” (I am looking for my spirit.)
The old Indian sat and stared at Johnny through vacant, almost opaque eyes.
“Wa nee yea due ne doe na hey?” (How many winters are you?) He asked the teenager.
“Hemaca wikcemna akesakpe,” (I am sixteen,) Johnny answered.
Once again the man sat and stared. It was almost as if he was looking into Johnny’s soul.
“E wang oh ma nee yo,” (Be careful when you travel,) The old man said quietly.
“Pilamaya…Txun blays ya huh, txoe kata key ya, ma wah nee,” (Thank you… I am walking toward the future making good and sober decisions,) Johnny answered.
The old Indian held out his gnarled hand, and Johnny reached out and grasped it back ever so gently. The old man closed his eyes, and his lips began moving silently for several moments. Once he had finished his prayer, he sighed and let go of Johnny’s hand and let his own hand fall back on to his blankets.
“Ee na hx nee yo… Due way nee shnee…Enila,” (Hurry…There is no one around…Be quiet,) the old man said as he gave Johnny a feeble shove away from the bed.
“Pilamaya.” (Thank you.) Johnny said again as he reached down and gave the old mans’ hand a final squeeze. He took one final look into the proud elders face before he quickly headed over to the window.
Just as he had pushed his body about halfway through the window, he heard the old Native call out one final time… “Wakan Takan kici un…” (May the creator/ God/Great Spirit/ bless you.)
“I sure hope so,” Johnny whispered as he lowered himself on to the ground, picked up the pillow case and quickly disappeared into the night.
Because it was the night of the new moon, it was black as pitch outside. With the exception of the stars above, there was no light from the skies overhead. Still, Johnny had spent many nights travelling through the reservation without benefit of any light to guide him, so he had no problems navigating his way along the open ground.
Johnny moved along with amazing speed and agility considering how long he had been confined to a bed. Clearly his efforts to build up his stamina had been successful, although he knew that running was still quite beyond his capabilities at this point. Still, all things considered, he was making pretty good time.
He had been travelling along for a good half hour when he came up to the far edge of town. Johnny could see the local bar where his grandfather usually spent most of his evenings drowning his liver in booze.
Making sure he stayed undetected and shrouded within the dark night shadows, Johnny crept up to the window alongside the back of the bar and peered through the dusty glass pane.
Just as he had suspected, he saw his grandfather sitting in the far corner of the bar at his favourite beat up table; his only company was his usual drinking buddy, Johnnie Walker, who was sitting on top of the table in front of the old man in both black and red. The two half empty bottles meant that his grandfather was already more than half in the bag. The clock on the wall above the bar indicated that it was now ten minutes until midnight.
It was his grandfather’s regular habit to stay until the bar’s closing time, at which time he would be ushered out the door and into the streets.
Johnny knew that the bar usually remained open until two in the morning on Friday and Saturday nights, but shut down at one o’clock on the weeknights. Since this was Thursday (at least it would be for another ten minutes), he knew that he had a little more than an hour to get to the woodshed and get out again before the old man returned home. He was still at least twenty minutes away from the house, so he quietly slid back into the night shadows and picked up his pace as he made a bee line for his grandparents’ home.
The late October air was unseasonably warm this year, although he had heard on the weather reports on the clinic radio that a cold front from the north was supposed to be moving down by the next week. None of that mattered to Johnny, because he planned on being well south of here by that time anyway.
As he approached the house, Johnny was relieved to discover that it stood in total darkness, except for the front porch light that his grandmother had left on for his grandfather. Thankfully the woodshed was located at the back of the house just off of the kitchen, while the bedrooms were located near the front of the house on the second floor.
Carefully Johnny employed the skill of walking without making a sound that White Eagle had spent months making him learn. It was a skill he was now thankful for.
Stealthily he crept up to the back of the house and slipped inside the woodshed door. Years of practice navigating his way around the woodshed in the dark meant he had no difficulty finding his way to the pallet that had served as his bed.
Johnny felt around under the pallet until his hands fell upon a small flashlight. Since the woodshed itself had no windows, Johnny reached back and shut the door, without latching it, and then switched on the flashlight so he could procure his necklace and his tin box full of money.
The first thing Johnny saw when the dim shaft of light came on was the dust covered surface of his pallet. Even covered with over two months’ worth of dust, Johnny could still clearly make out several areas on the cot and the blanket that covered it, that were saturated with dried blood stains... his blood; the sight of which sent an involuntary shiver throughout his body.
Even though, due to the head injury, he had no memory of the actual attack or indeed any memories of the week leading up to his attack, Johnny still found the site disturbing and it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He had originally planned on taking his blanket with him, but after seeing what condition it was in, he gave up that idea entirely.
Giving himself a mental shake, Johnny got back down to the business at hand. He easily located the crude wooden crate than held his few meager items of clothes; thankfully both his shoes and his moccasins where still there along with the rest of his clothes.
Johnny quickly gathered them up and, with the exception of the moccasins he shoved them into the pillow case along with the magazines and food. There would be no time to change into his clothes just yet, but he did slip his bare feet inside the soft leather moccasins.
Then he flashed the beam of the incandescent light towards the area behind the woodpile. Silently he made his way over and reached down to gently lift the slat of wood on the floor that concealed his most treasured items. The board lifted easily and Johnny snaked his hand and arm underneath the floor until his fingers found the small leather bag that held his necklace, and the tin box that sat beside it.
His newly healed shoulder and arm began to ache slightly with all of the stretching and moving about, but all in all the task had gone off without a hitch. Johnny swiftly replaced the board to its original position, switched off the flashlight and shoved it into the pillowcase and slipped noiselessly out of the woodshed for the very last time in his life.
He had just made it as far as the back garden gate and was about to slip away when he felt a strong hand reach down and grab his shoulder.
“And just where do you think you’re going, young man?” a deep baritone voice demanded quietly in his ear.
Johnny’s hand froze in place on the gate’s latch as his body stiffened. A look of sheer terror crossed his face, and he could feel the muscles in his chest constrict and squeeze all the air out of his lungs. His mouth opened but no noise came out, as he struggled to catch his breath. He could hear no other sounds but the roar of the blood thundering in his ears.
He didn’t actually swoon, but his knees began to buckle and he found himself holding onto the edge of the gate with an iron grip in order to keep his body from collapsing onto the ground.
His heart leapt into his throat and his body began to tremble, but before he could turn around and look at his captor, he felt two strong arms brace him up and support his body.
“Damn it… I’m sorry kid. I shouldn’t have snuck up on ya like that…but I didn’t want to make a lot of noise in case it woke up your grandmother.”
Johnny turned around and came face to face with his good friend, Old Bill. The teenager slowly relaxed his body allowing the air to seep back into his lungs again. He let out a shaky sigh of relief, and offered a weak smile in return.
Johnny could barely make out the older man’s face in dark night, but those features he could see bore a countenance that was a mixture of concern and regret.
Bill smiled at the teenager’s questioning look and began to offer up an explanation as to why he was there.
“I figured you were up to somethin’ by the way you were acting in the clinic the other day. And then tonight I was on my way back to the ranch from having a beer with some friends when I saw you sneakin’ around the outside of the bar. I put two and two together and guessed you’d gone AWOL from the clinic, so I followed you here… Come on, this isn’t the safest place in the world to talk,” Bill said as he let go of Johnny’s shoulders.
Johnny wanted to say something to the ranch hand, but his voice still hadn’t recovered from the shock so he settled for nodding mutely instead.
Bill reached over and grabbed hold of his arm reassuringly with one of his big bear paw hands, while he took hold of the pillowcase with his other.
“Come on son… I passed your grandfather about a mile back on the road… there’s no time to waste. I got my truck parked at the end of the lane,” he whispered as he pulled the still stunned teenager along behind him.
Once they were in the truck, Old Bill turned on the engine and steered the vehicle in the opposite direction of Johnny’s grandparents’ home. Neither of them said a single word the entire trip back to the ranch.
Ten minutes later, Bill pulled up beside the ranch hands’ quarters and cut the engine to the truck. He turned in his seat and looked at Johnny full on.
“Now… I’ll ask you again John; where are you going?”
Johnny kept his eyes downcast, staring at his hands that were folded in his lap.
“Away,” he quietly replied.
Old Bill sighed in frustration. “Well I figured that much out myself… I kinda assumed by the way you were acting at the clinic that you had some kinda plan in your head.”
Johnny looked up forlornly at the ranch hand. “I can’t stay here, this place will kill me…one way or another. Either grandfather will get me outright; or all the bigotry and poverty will kill my soul. I may have had a chance to survive until I was eighteen with White Eagle…but now he’s gone too.” Johnny’s voice trailed off into silence once more.
The older ranch foreman’s face softened and he patted the teenagers shoulder gently. “I know that too son, which brings me back to my original question.
Care to let me in on your plans about where you are going? Maybe I can help ya out?”
Johnny remained silent and continued to stare down at his hands without volunteering any more information. Bill let the silence hang for a few minutes before he decided to try a different tactic. “I don’t blame you for sneaking away from the clinic John; in fact we’ve been discussing it a lot ever since White Eagle died. We realized that for your own safety you couldn’t go back into that house.”
“Who’s we?” Johnny asked.
“The ranch owners, myself and a couple of the other ranch hands,” Bill answered. “The trouble is, according to the law you’re to go back to your grandparents’ home and be subject to their guardianship until you’re eighteen…Of course now that you’ve gone and taken matters into your own hands, I don’t have a problem with aiding and abetting you in your escape,” he said with a sly grin on his face.
“You mean we don’t have a problem helping the boy out,” came a heavily accented voice from the open driver’s side window.
Johnny’s head snapped up as he looked into the eyes of the ranch owner. He hadn’t noticed the man walking up beside the truck in dark night air.
“Good evening, Stojce,” Bill said with a grin and a wink. “What brings you out here in the wee hours of the morning… as if I didn’t already know,” he added with a chuckle.
The ranch owner grinned in return and nodded his head in Johnny’s direction.
Johnny was still very much on his guard when he hesitantly asked, “How long have you been standing there, sir?”
The ranch owner smiled back sadly, “Long enough, son… in fact I’ve been standing around watching you for far too long. Bring him on into the main house, Bill; we’ve got some planning to do. Besides he’s just recovered from pneumonia and only been out of his bed for a couple of hours, and even though it’s a warm one, those pyjamas and that robe are awfully threadbare.
You need to get inside and put on something warmer than that.”
Bill laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Well you heard the man lad, let’s go into main house and get ourselves something warm to drink… then we can plan out your strategy.”
Johnny heaved a sigh of resignation and with a silent nod he opened his door and followed the two men across the ranchers’ yard toward the main house.
Johnny trudged up the front porch steps with more than a little trepidation. Bill looked over and clamped one of his large weather beaten hands on the teenagers shoulder.
“Relax boy. You’re acting like you’re on your way to the gallows,” he exclaimed.
Johnny gave the older man an apologetic smile and took a deep steadying breath. Although the weather was unseasonably mild for this time of year, Johnny was unprepared for the rush of heated air that surrounded him as he stepped into the large country kitchen.
The sharp change in temperature in combination with the stress of the evening took its toll on the young man and he found himself feeling lightheaded. He had only advanced inside a couple of steps when he began to sway on his feet.
Johnny quickly found himself being supported by Old Bill while he was ushered further into the kitchen and pushed into a chair. From seemingly out of nowhere he heard the ranch owner’s wife begin to fuss over him, and mildly reprove Old Bill.
“For heaven’s sake Bill! What were you thinking letting the boy traipse all over God’s green earth in his night clothes? He’s just newly risen from his sick bed,” she chided. “Poor child, look at you, you’re as pale as a ghost and as skinny as a rail. What you need is to be fed up with some proper food and then get a descent night’s rest in a good warm bed.”
She quickly moved away from Johnny’s side and began to bark out orders to the two men in the kitchen.
“Bill, you take the boy’s gear and put it in the spare room upstairs, and Stojce, how about you go and rustle up some warmer clothes and run him a bath while I get him a snack.”
The entire time she was speaking, she was also setting out a glass of cold milk and a plate of cold fried chicken in front of him. It became abundantly clear that Old Bill wasn’t the only one who was expecting him to make a break for it from the clinic tonight.
Bill winked at Johnny as he reached over and took the pillowcase full of Johnny’s possessions from his hands. “You heard the lady, John… dig in.”
As he sat there drinking his milk, Johnny couldn’t help but notice the warm loving atmosphere in the large country kitchen and the gentle care and concern these people had for his well-being. It called into sharp contrast the cold, austere and dour mood that constantly hung over his grandparents’ kitchen.
Johnny sat and basked in the glow of the warmth while he ate his food, but he knew that as much as he was enjoying the convivial atmosphere in the kitchen he would soon have to find a way to slip away. He wanted to be as far away from the reservation as he could before dawn.
John Gage had experienced enough for more than three lifetimes in just the short sixteen years he had been walking on the face of the earth, and because of that he could say without a shadow of a doubt that he did not believe in luck or chance in any way, shape or form. He did believe, however, in destiny and divine intervention.
He believed in a Higher Power, and he also believed that a person’s actions could sway their destiny; either for the good or the bad. He knew that the gift of free will meant, to some extent, that he had a say in how his life turned out.
He knew that if a person put their faith and trust in that Higher Power and directed their actions accordingly, that sometimes a merciful and loving God would intervene for the good. It had been the only thing that had gotten him through some very tough times.
In the days ahead, as Johnny looked back on what happened next, he decided it had been one of those times, when the Almighty had intervened for his benefit; for just as he was trying to work out how he could quietly slip away; there was a small tearing sound, and Johnny watched in dismay as the bottom of the pillowcase in Bill’s hand gave out and its entire contents spilled out onto the floor.
The tin box fell with a crash and opened up revealing his entire life savings to everyone in the room. To make matters worse, the wax carton of warm milk burst open, soaking what few clothes he had. The stale dinner rolls he had been hoarding were a crumbled mess as they sat getting soggy in a small puddle of sour warm milk, while the pile of magazines were sprawled out on the floor amongst the entire mess.
Johnny was mortified and he quickly sprang out of the chair, his face red with embarrassment as he tried valiantly to scoop up the items.
He quickly made a grab for his cash box, gathering up the few errant coins that had rolled across the floor.
“I didn’t steal the money,” he said nervously. “I’ve been saving it up for almost two years now.”
His hands began to shake as his nerves got the better of him. He looked warily around the room to try and gauge everyone’s reactions. His eyes betrayed the terror he was feeling about what he was going to do if these people didn’t believe him.
He nearly jumped right out of his skin when he suddenly felt the rancher’s wife kneel down and put her arms around his shoulders. “We know you didn’t steal the money Johnny. Now how about you let me clean this mess up while you finish your meal… then you can go on in and have a nice hot bath and crawl into bed. You look completely done in.” she said kindly.
Johnny’s eyes dropped to the floor. “I … I can’t stay here. I have to get going right away. I thank you kindly for the food, but I want to be miles away before the sun comes up and folks start looking for me. I would appreciate it if maybe Old Bill would give me a ride out to church yard in town so I can say goodbye to Mom and Dad before I leave.”
The room grew deathly silent as the adults all exchanged sorrowful glances at the heart wrenching words they had just heard.
Finally the ranch owner spoke up. “Don’t you worry about any of that right now son. You just let us deal with it. We got a plan all worked out. Now where exactly is it you were heading?”
Johnny shook his head at their offer. “I’m heading south and as soon as I think it’s safe, I’m going to use my cash to buy some supplies, find a nice out of the way place and set myself up a camp where I can hunker down.”
Johnny paused and looked around at these people who were willing to stick their necks out for him and smiled appreciatively. He was grateful for what they were offering to do, but he didn’t want them to get into trouble for helping an underage runaway. He shook his head again and continued on.
“Look, I really appreciate your offer, but I really think that it would be better for all of you if you don’t know where it is that I’m going… exactly. That way if anyone official comes around asking for me, you’ll be able to honestly say that you don’t have any idea where I am.”
Bill snorted derisively. “I highly doubt that that’s going to happen, son. First of all, we all know your grandmother would be happier if you never stepped foot inside her house again. She’d be over the moon if you did disappear. And your grandfather got away with what he did to you because nobody questioned his alibi too closely… neither the clinic nor the local constabulary. We all know this place is full of bigots… on both sides. You’re sixteen now so the school won’t be obligated to question it either. The last thing anyone is going to do is report you as missing, because then the state police will be notified, and an outside investigation will be done… and no one around here wants that because a lot of folks … officials included, would have to face a lot of uncomfortable questions. I suspect your grandfather may come around here looking for you, but I doubt it will go any further than that. And I kinda hope he does, because there are a couple of things I’d like to have a private chat with him about,” Bill finished with more than a hint of anger in his voice.
“Besides,” the ranch owner interjected. “None of us has any problem keeping your secret… no one around here deserves the truth… The truth is something they have been ignoring for years when it comes to you, boy. It’s a bit late for them to start demanding it now… And by the time anyone gets around to showing up here, you’ll be long gone.”
“Anyway, we owe this to your parents… we should have stepped in a long time ago. Your folks would have expected us to, and it’s to our shame that we didn’t want to upset the status quo, so we held our peace … and you paid the price for our reticence, and for that we’re all deeply sorry son,” Bill said regretfully.
“So… where are you headed, Johnny?” Bill asked again.
Johnny looked around at these people and knew he could trust them. He knew instinctively that he had an ally in them, and he was touched by their loyalty.
“I am going to hitch hike down to the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. Once I get myself set up in some out of the way place, I figure I can live off the land with berries, nuts and by fishing to a certain extent, plus with a lot of pre-packaged food I should be fine. I figure in a place as big as Los Angeles there will always be odd jobs to be had where I can pick up a bit of cash to restock every so often. If I can hang on until I’m eighteen, then I’ll look for a full-time job where I can save up enough to get myself a room or a small apartment. Then hopefully I can work days and go to night school so I can get my high school diploma. “
After that Johnny wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. In his experience it didn’t really pay to make too many long term plans because life had a tendency to toss a few curve balls at you along the way; his parents’ murders and the sudden death of White Eagle to name but two of them.
The ranch owners’ wife had her own misgivings about his plans and she was quick to voice them. “I don’t know about this, Johnny. So much could go wrong and I just don’t like the thought of you living out in the wilderness all by yourself trying to survive in nature.”
Johnny’s eyes flashed with determination and defiance and he dug in his heels, prepared to hold his ground in the matter.
“How is this so different from what the original plan was? If it hadn’t been for the fact that White Eagle died, I’d be doing the exact same thing right here in the hills of Montana. The only difference is that it would be colder here. I was supposed to meet him on the night I was attacked… In fact I am reasonably sure that is why grandfather attacked me when he did in the first place. The only real difference, besides being on my own; is that it’s a heck of a lot warmer in Southern California than it is up here in Northern Montana. So in a lot of ways it should be easier for me this way.”
The ranch owners’ wife was still not ready to give up. “But this way you won’t have any of us around to help if you get into trouble… you’ll be so far away from everyone you know.”
“That’s the point ma’am. I’ll be far away from everyone who would want to hurt me… or worse. And when it comes right down to it, I’ve been pretty much on my own and surviving all this abuse and hate for six years now. I don’t see how where I am going could possibly be any worse … No ma’am, I’ve made up my mind, and I mean to leave right away. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
You could have heard a pin drop as he finished his proclamation, and for several long moments no one said a word. Finally Bill glanced up at the clock and noticed than it was coming up to one in the morning. He quietly cleared his throat and stepped forward.
“You go on up and get into that hot bath and into warmer duds. Then you can climb into bed and catch a few hours’ sleep. I promise I’ll wake you up at dawn and drive you out to say goodbye to your folks. After that we’ll grab a good breakfast and I’ll personally drive you across the state line. Your choice, Idaho or Wyoming, I’ll take you to either state line. You’ll be out of Montana by lunch time either way.”
It was at this point that the ranch owners’ wife spoke up again. “While you’re saying good-bye to your parents, I’ll wash up your clothes and pack you enough food to last you for a few days, so you won’t go hungry along the way.”
Johnny looked up with grateful unshed tears in his eyes. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
~ ~ ~
“Time to wake up Johnny,” Old Bill whispered as he gently shook the teenager’s shoulder.
Johnny stirred and opened up his eyes and stared blearily around the small spare room. It was dimly lit with a single bulb that couldn’t have been more than forty watts in strength. And even though the room wasn’t that large, it was extremely neat and tidy and the bed had a soft thick feather tick on it, which had made a warm comfortable nest for Johnny to sleep on. He had opted to sleep in this smaller room because it was the only one located on the first floor, and he didn’t want to wake up the ranch owner or his wife when he got up at dawn.
“What time is it?” he asked Bill sleepily.
“It’s five forty five,” Bill answered. “If we leave now we can be back here by seven. That will give us plenty of time to grab your gear, get some breakfast and still be on the road by eight or eight thirty at the latest.”
Johnny nodded his head as he reluctantly slid out from the warmth of the bed. He was surprised to find a pair of his well-worn jeans and his flannel shirt laid out across the foot of his bed, and that they had been freshly laundered. The ranch owner’s wife had obviously stayed up well into the night to do his laundry.
He quickly slipped out of the bed and stretched his still stiff body. His newly healed arm and shoulder still ached slightly, but with some careful stretching he was able to work the kinks out without too much effort.
He quickly slipped into his clothes, but made sure to carry his shoes out to the kitchen so as not to make any unnecessary noise. He soon realized his extra effort hadn’t been necessary because when he arrived in the kitchen he found both the ranch owner and his wife still awake and bustling around the room.
The ranch owner was up and dressed with his jacket and boots already on, while his wife was busy slipping some homemade bread into the oven.
Johnny was about to ask them what they were still doing up, but before he could even open his mouth to speak, Bill was shoving a muffin into one hand and cup of juice into the other.
“Here, John, we’ll take these with us in the truck to eat on the way. We got a lot to do and only a few hours to do it in…let’s go.”
And with that he tossed a corduroy jacket that someone had procured for him from somewhere into his free hand, and gently pushed him towards the back door.
Johnny shivered as he stepped out into the cool predawn air. The stars were still out and the moon was low on the horizon as they made their way across the yard in the darkness and got into Bill’s truck.
Johnny sat silently, lost in his own thoughts for most of the ride, and it wasn’t until the first pale streaks of dawn appeared on the eastern horizon off to his right, that he took a good look around and noticed that they weren’t heading in the direction of the church yard.
He looked over at Bill in confusion.
“Bill, we’re going the wrong way… we shouldn’t be heading north…the church yard is west of here.”
Bill drove on without taking his eyes off the road.
“I know that, Johnny, but there’s something else I think you need to do before you leave… don’t worry we’ve got lots of time to get to the church yard.”
Johnny sat back and pondered the situation for a moment before he spoke again.
“Well, are you going to let me in on your little secret? Just exactly where are you taking me?” he asked.
“To say good-bye to White Eagle; I think you’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t.” was Bills quiet reply.
Johnny had desperately wanted to do exactly that, but he hadn’t known where his old friend and mentor was buried and he didn’t think he would have had time to search it out… nor would he have dared ask anyone for fear they’d send him back to his grandparents. But things had changed now, and with the promise of a ride over the state line, he could afford the time.
He looked at the older man beside him who had been like an uncle to him, and his heart was filled with gratitude.
“Thanks, Bill… one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”
Nothing more was said between them for the rest of the journey. After another twenty minutes of driving up into the foothills, Bill turned off onto the private lane that was located on the northern edge of the rancher’s land. Once he got close to the game trail that led into the bush he pulled up and stopped.
“We buried him at the top of that ridge, overlooking the stream. I’m not sure it’s all that legal, but White Eagle had always been adamant that he didn’t want to be buried on reservation land. He said he didn’t want his final resting place to be on the land that the white man had tried to force on him. No government official has checked on him for decades…it’s as if he never existed. We found him gone, but we didn’t report it. As far as the government is concerned he could have wandered off and died years ago. So we figured, no harm, no foul if we just quietly buried him and said no more about it.”
Johnny smiled sadly.
“Shoot, shovel and shut- up, huh?” Johnny said slyly.
“That’s my motto, kid,” Bill answered with a wink.
“The large boulder that he liked to sit on while he prayed is acting as his head stone. We buried him facing the east so he can see the sunrise for all eternity.
You know where it is… I imagine you can find it even in this dim light… You’ve got about half an hour and then we gotta get going to the church yard.”
Johnny opened the door of the truck and slid out. Before he closed the door he leaned back into the cab of the pick-up.
“Thanks for this, Bill. You don’t know how much it means to me,” he said as he pushed the door closed and headed off up the trail.
“Yeah, kid. I think I do,” Bill said sadly as he sat alone inside the empty interior of the truck.
Johnny hurried along as quickly as he could as he made his way up the familiar path he and White Eagle had trod upon many times in the past. Somewhere amongst the myriad of thoughts that were swirling around inside his head was the knowledge that this would be the last time he would be making this all too familiar hike.
In fact he knew this day would be full of sights and people he would in all likelihood be seeing for the very last time in his life. That knowledge filled him with both sadness and relief.
Johnny’s private musings where cut short as he came upon the large boulder that both he and White Eagle had sat upon so often in the past. White Eagle had used it not only as a place to pray, but also as the site where he and Johnny had had some of their more serious conversations about not only life in general, but more specifically, about Johnny’s past, present and future. And on rare occasions … White Eagle’s past.
Johnny could tell even in the cool grey light of dawn, where the ground had recently been disturbed and that there was a clearly marked outline of White Eagle’s grave. By spring the area would once again be reclaimed by nature and it would quickly obscure all traces of the gravesite, but for now, the recently disturbed area was still quite visible.
Johnny quietly climbed up onto the large rock and gazed down at the spot where the old Indian lay. As he sat there in quiet contemplation he cast his mind back to the many conversations he had had with the old man and smiled sadly. A few errant tears escaped from the corner of his eyes.
Johnny knew that no matter where life took him, he would always carry within his heart the lessons White Eagle had taught him.
White Eagle had been first and foremost a quiet, gentle man. He had been kinder in life to those around him than life itself had been to him, and indeed as most men had been to him. It had probably been White Eagle’s own peaceful nature and sorrowful past that had drawn the old Indian to take Johnny under his wing in the first place.
Johnny knew he would miss the stories White Eagle had told him. He’d always had a way of speaking in such vivid detail that there had been times that Johnny was sure he was actually glimpsing, wavering on the horizon of, a vision from the misty past of this land and the young vibrant youth that White Eagle had once been.
The old Indian had taught Johnny so much; not only about how to survive… but on how to live an honourable life as well.
White Eagle had not only been a philosopher, but a man of great wisdom and patience; and as the tears of grief slid down the teenager’s face he recalled one of the last conversations he had had with his friend.
It had taken place at this very rock, just a few days before his sixteenth birthday… just a few days before his grandfather had almost killed him.
The two of them had been camping out during a hot humid spell and they had just watched the sunset set and were settling down for the night. They had making the final plans for Johnny to come and live with White Eagle until he was eighteen. But they had also discussed Johnny’s future that night too. Johnny could still picture that night clearly in his mind, and the words White Eagle had spoken to him …
"I want you to make me a promise Gray Wolf. You are an honest and honorable young man, and the sorrows you have had to face in your life have made you wise beyond your years. You have seen more than any of us what a harsh and unfair place the world can be.
You have the burden of carrying within your skin two very different heritages, both equally deserving of pride. But up here in this neck of the woods it has been a hard burden for you to bear. And although this has been the only home you have ever known, I want you to promise me now that when you turn eighteen, you will leave the reservation. For in truth, it hasn’t really been a home to you for years now. I want you to go and find what joy you can somewhere else. Here you will always be perceived as insignificant and unworthy, for the eyes of the locals … both white and native … are clouded by ignorance and hate and they cannot see the true worth of your soul.
Leave the reservation, young Gray Wolf… leave this entire area for good. You should head to the big city. In the big city one can stand alone and remain anonymous and just blend in with everyone else, but here on the reservation your mixed heritage will always be a vexation to your spirit and your soul for as long as you draw breath. Someday perhaps life will change … but sadly, young Gray Wolf, I fear it won’t be in time for either one of us. So as soon as you turn eighteen you must go. Promise me you will go and never look back. There is nothing here for you, and there never will be … here there will only ever be pain and sorrow."
Before Johnny had fallen asleep that night, White Eagle had left him with one last cautionary warning.
"I have one last piece of advice for you, young Grey Wolf. When you do go out and make your own way in the world and you are far away from this place, I want you to remember to pay attention and listen to the advice of what those in power are saying and what they tell you, but make sure that you never lose your own voice. Before you make any decision on any matter, you must listen to your own soul and trust your heart, for you have good instincts, and they will take you far if you have the wisdom to discern what it is they are whispering to you…"
That had been the last time Johnny had seen White Eagle alive.
That entire final conversation he had had with White Eagle still echoed in his ears as he stood looking down at the sod that covered his mentor.
Johnny knelt down on the earth that was now the final resting place of the old Indian. He bowed his head in sorrow and closed his eyes as he allowed his tears to fall freely. When he finally looked up again, he noticed that the sun was just beginning to break onto the eastern horizon in glorious golden shafts of light, and he could hear the morning birds begin to call out to one another. It held the promise of a day that would be sunny and warm… perfect for travelling on the open road.
Johnny knew that as much as he wished he could stay and give his friend a proper good-bye, he just couldn’t spare any extra moments … time was against him this day and he had much to do before the clock struck nine.
He reached out his hand and laid it gently on the earth over the grave and whispered.
“Doksa ake waunkte.” (I will see you again later…it can mean either on earth or in heaven.)
The teenager then slowly rose to his feet and with a final glimpse at the grave, the boulder and the morning sunrise behind it, he turned and made his way quickly back down the game trail to where Old Bill was waiting for him in the truck.
The ride to the graveyard was done in absolute silence; each of the vehicles occupants was preoccupied with his own thoughts.
For Johnny the thoughts were of bitterness and sorrow. In the six years since his parents’ death he had only been to the graveyard once, and that had only been because he had gone into the city to pick up supplies with Old Bill, and he had asked the ranch foreman if he would take him to see where his parents were buried.
Johnny’s parents had been buried in the white mans’ cemetery off the reservation. His father because he was a white man, and his mother because she had shamed her family by marrying a white man and bringing him onto the reservation … But even worse was the fact that she had conceived a half breed child who by law became the responsibility of the reservation.
At the time of the accident that had claimed their lives, Johnny had been taken to the clinic to have his arm set and cast. He had been kept at the clinic until his grandmother had collected him four days after the accident. By that time his parents had been summarily buried without a funeral, and Johnny’s pleas to be allowed to say goodbye had fallen on angry and uncaring ears.
So now here he was about to have his second visit to the small church yard cemetery. In his heart he knew it would probably be the last time he would ever see his parents’ graves. Inside of his heart his emotions were at war with each other, overwhelming him with feelings of both sorrow and bitterness over this fact.
For his part, Bill’s conscience was also waging war with itself. His emotions were more along the line of anger and guilt.
Anger at the hand life had dealt the teenage boy sitting beside him, and guilt at what he had perceived to be his part in the situation.
Life on an Indian reservation during the fifties and sixties still operated on a completely different level than the rest of society. And for someone like John Gage, finding fairness or happiness was next to impossible. The ranch owner’s wife had once likened it to trying to find a needle in a haystack, but Bill knew it was more like looking for one single particular strand of hay in a haystack that was the size of the entire state of Montana. In essence it was impossible.
Everyone had known that the “accident” that had happened six years ago was murder. And they had also known that the boy was supposed to have died along with his father. Everyone had also known about the boy’s grandparents, and in particular his grandfather’s anger and resentment toward the boy. The disturbing signs and patterns of abuse and neglect were impossible to overlook.
But there was an unwritten rule in that part of the world, and that rule dictated the whites didn’t interfere with native laws, nor did they interfere or concern themselves with the day to day life on the reservation. Even the government officials had turned a blind eye to the goings on in the reservation. The government had put the natives there, and made sure that they kept them there … and then they promptly forgot about them.
The officials had conveniently swept the ‘native problem’ into the proverbial closet that they called ‘the reservation” so that they were all safely tucked away and out of public view. It was a problem solved as far as they were concerned.
The natives themselves had a love hate relationship with the government. On one hand they wanted them to take action and step in and return to them what was rightly theirs. But at the same time they loathed their presence and didn’t want them interfering with their lives. It was a kind of a catch 22 situation in which there was no way they could possibly win… and Johnny, being half white and half native, had been disenfranchised by both worlds.
In hindsight Old Bill felt incredibly guilty that he hadn’t stepped in and tried to get the boy out of his grandparent’s clutches years ago, but the pressure not to upset the status quo had won out, so no one had done anything to help the boy and he had simply fallen through the cracks.
But ever since this last attack on the boy had occurred and the subsequent death of White Eagle, Bill, the ranch owners and a handful of the other ranch hands had determined to step in and put an end to it. So when it had become evident to Old Bill at the hospital that the boy had decided to make a run for it, the group of adults had decided that they were going to help him in any way they possibly could. For the past several days they had been putting together their own little plan to help him escape.
Every adult that the boy had ever known had let him down in some way or another. Some had been guilty of out and out abuse…others like the clinic and hospital officials had simply turned a blind eye. And then there were the ones like he and the ranch owners, who wanted to help but had been reluctant to rock the boat and get involved in what was a potentially messy situation. So who could blame the boy if he had decided that he had finally had enough and was going take matters into his own hands and emancipate himself?
And if he and the others could assist him in his plan … well then by golly, they would. After all it was long overdue.
~ ~ ~
The early morning dew still clung to the grass and leaves as Johnny approached the small simple grave marker that sat in a dark, quiet corner of the churchyard. The stillness of the early morning air only added to the almost reverent feeling in the cemetery.
Johnny stood and looked down at the simple pink slab of granite that bore the names of his parents on its surface. Other than his existence, those two simple dates carved on the front of the polished stone were the only indicators that two people named Roderick Gage and Kate Running Wolf had ever walked on the face of the earth.
The entire length of their days was summed up by the faded inscriptions on this simple stone in a tiny and forgotten corner of a small churchyard. His father had been orphaned by the death of the last of his relatives, and his mother had been orphaned because of the hatred and racism by her own family. Once he left this graveyard, they would simply fade out of memory and time completely… forgotten by everyone but him. And who knew where he would end up? Perhaps he would end up like White Eagle, buried in an unmarked piece of land somewhere forgotten by a world that didn’t really care.
Suddenly the teen was filled with a wave of anger and determination and he knelt down in front of the grave marker and made a vow to his parents right then and there.
“I swear to you both right now, that I will make sure that your lives were not in vain. I’m going to do something good with my life. I’m going to make a difference for the better in peoples’ lives. I don’t how yet… but I’m gonna. As God is my witness, I’m gonna make my life count for something good.”
“I still have the necklace, Mama; it’s sitting next to my heart. You and Papa will never be far away from my heart… I love you both…I miss you both so much. I promise I’ll make you proud of me,” he whispered through his tears.
He let his hand slowly trail over the surface of the stone as he felt the raised lettering on the surface. Quietly he reached into his shirt and pulled out a small leather pouch and with his pocket knife he dug at the sod that covered his parents’ graves. Once he had pulled away the surface of the grass, he reached down and scooped up a handful of earth from the graves and filled the pouch with the soil. When he was finished, he carefully reached back with his knife to the nape of his neck and cut off a lock of his long hair. He gently coiled it up and shoved it into the hole he had made in the soil with his knife.
“Now a piece of me will always be with you, just as I have a piece of you with me next to my heart,” he whispered.
He quickly returned the small section of sod he had cut away to the gravesite, and stood up.
“Good-bye Mama … good-bye Papa. I love you.”
And with that he quickly wiped away his tears and stood up, but before he walked back to the pickup truck, he scanned the graveyard for one long and final moment with his eyes, just as he had done at White Eagles grave. It was almost as if his heart was taking a mental snapshot of this place before he left it for good, because his heart and soul both understood that he would never lay eyes upon these places again.
He didn’t lament saying good-bye to the reservation, and he certainly hadn’t changed his mind about leaving, but the recurring question he had tried hard to ignore all these years popped back into his head.
So many times in the past few years he had been plagued with the one question he always secretly held inside his heart. It was a question he had never once voiced out loud… not even to himself when he was alone in the dark. He couldn’t allow himself to voice it for fear of sounding disloyal to his parents, but now as he sat walked away from their graves it was screaming to be asked … Why?
Why had they returned to the reservation after they were married? They had to have known how they would be treated, not to mention what life would be like for any children they had, and yet they had still come back.
As he glanced back one last time at the graves that held the only two people who had ever totally loved him, he couldn’t help feeling the pain and sadness over the sorrow and regret he still quietly harboured over all of the ‘what ifs’ in his past.
What if his parents had never come back to the reservation after they had been married? What if they hadn’t been on that particular road that fateful night six years ago? What if his mother hadn’t been with them that day? What if all the adults and officials that had come across his path in the last six years had done what they were supposed to do and stepped in earlier?
What if … what if?
Heaving a final heavy sigh, Johnny straightened his shoulders, wiped his eyes and stole one farewell glance at his parents’ graves and then he walked back to where the pick-up truck sat waiting for him outside the church yard gates.
“I’m ready now, Bill. Can you please take me back to the ranch to get my things? It’s seven o’clock and I really need to get going.”
~ ~ ~
“Yes sir, it sure has been a strange autumn. I can’t remember a time when the weather has been so uncommonly warm and dry this late in the year.”
Johnny smiled politely and nodded his head in agreement, for no other reason than the old woman sitting beside him on the bench seemed to expect him to acknowledge her statement. He returned his gaze back towards the ticket counter where Stojce and the agent were talking. The clock on the wall read eleven forty five and Johnny could feel his stomach begin to rumble.
It wasn’t even noon hour, and yet to Johnny it felt as if he had lived an entire lifetime just in the six hours since Old Bill had woken him up that morning.
When he and Bill had returned to the ranch after he had said his good-byes to White Eagle and his parents, he had been met with a surprise. It seemed that while he was away with Old Bill, the ranch owner had been busy calling in a few favours from some of the supply stores he did business with.
When he and Bill had walked into the ranch house kitchen, he was met with a table full of camping gear. There was an all season sleeping bag, a small tent, canteens, a cook stove and lantern. There was also a vast array of all the supplies he would ever need to survive, including water purification tablets, a hatchet, water proof matches along with a flint, first aid kit, and the list went on and on. Sitting beside it all was a heavy duty metal framed back pack large enough to hold everything.
Sitting on the chair beside him was a duffle bag that had been filled with new clothes that had mysteriously appeared from somewhere. These clothes included a warm coat and sturdy hiking boots.
He glanced up and watched as the ranch owners and Bill grinned at him. “Well go ahead and look it over, John. We thought maybe you could use a little help on starting out on your new life… we hope you like it.”
Johnny sat there stunned and open mouthed as he took note of everything. His first inclination was to refuse to take the gifts, but after careful consideration he realized the wisdom in accepting the kind gesture with good grace. There was nothing to be gained by looking a gift horse in the mouth. Things were going to be tough enough for him, out in the wilderness completely on his own … Especially in the beginning. Even with the money he had saved up, he couldn’t have afforded gear this good. Besides this would mean his money could now be used for food and other necessities.
“I – I don’t know what to say except thank-you. I can’t believe you did this for me,” he answered. There was so much more he wanted to say, but the lump in his throat made it hard for him to speak.
To top it all off, the ranch owner then announced that he and Vaska had discussed it, and they had decided it was in Johnny’s best interest to get out of Montana quickly, so they were going to be driving him into Billings, three hours to the south of the reservation. There they would buy him a bus ticket to Los Angeles, so he wouldn’t have to hitch hike all the way. Vaska had conceded that Johnny needed to get away from the reservation, but she insisted that at least he didn’t need to put himself through such an arduous journey so soon after having had pneumonia.
In the end he accepted the offer, thanking the ranch owner and his wife profusely. Of course both Stojce and Vaska had brushed off his thanks. They claimed that, considering all the money Johnny’s father had made for them over the years with his skill and talents, they felt that they owed this to Johnny, and that he was to consider it payment for a long overdue and previously unpaid debt.
It had been quite an emotional morning for Johnny, but as hard as it had been for him to say good-bye to White Eagle and his parents, the most profoundly emotional event had happened back in the ranch house kitchen. He had been sitting there going through is new gear, when Vaska came into the kitchen from the back room, followed by Stojce and Bill carrying a large steamer style trunk between them. They walked over to Johnny and sat it down on the floor beside him.
“What’s this?” Johnny asked in confusion.
“It’s your inheritance … such as it is,” Vaska said quietly.
“My inheritance? I don’t understand,” Johnny replied.'
Vaska led him over to a chair and sat him down, and began to explain to him about the trunk.
“The night your folks were killed in that accident, one of the ranch hands came by and told us what had happened and that you had been taken to the reservation clinic, where you were being kept until you were well enough to be turned over to your grandparents. It was never any secret about how they felt about your parents’ marriage … or about their feelings towards you. We knew that the first chance they got that they would destroy any traces of the marriage and your father, so we decided to take matters into our own hands. Stojce and I got into the truck and went straight over to your house and gathered up anything we could find that might one day mean something to you. We have been holding it in trust for you until you got a place of your own someday.”
Vaska slowly stepped aside and gestured to the trunk.
“We’ll keep it here for you until you get yourself settled and get yourself a proper place to stay … but we thought now was the right time to tell you about it. We thought you might like to see it before you head out. When you get some place fixed up to live permanently, just write or telephone us, and we’ll send it down to you.”
Johnny stared open mouthed at the trunk for several moments. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard. For the last six years he thought his only tactile link to his parents had been his necklace; but here before him was an entire trunk full of tangible items that came directly from the first ten years of his life. Slowly and with trembling hands he reached over and lifted up the lid of the trunk and peered inside.
He couldn’t help the small gasp that escaped his lips and his eyes fell upon the top item in the trunk. A flood of memories came cascading back into his mind as he gazed upon the handmade quilt his mother had lovingly sewn for him when he was five or six years old. Flashes of memories swirled inside his head of his five year old self sitting in front of the fireplace while his mother sang or told him stories as she sewed on the quilt.
Sometimes she would stop and call him over so she could explain what each pattern on the quilt symbolized. He remembered vividly that she had pointed out a special section near the top of the quilt that she has told him was made from a swatch of material from the bandana his father had been wearing the day they had first met … the other half of the bandana she had sewn into another quilt that was destined for his parents bed.
Unbidden tears slid down his cheeks as he lovingly fingered the special swatch. Slowly he lifted the quilt out of the trunk so he could see what other treasures the trunk held. Each item he discovered left him overwhelmed with both joy and sadness. But most of all gratitude at what these two people had done for him. They had given him back part of his life. Part of his birthright and for that he would be eternally grateful.
In the end the list of items in the box included not only the belt buckle he had won at his first rodeo, but the first belt buckle his father had ever won as well. There was also the matching quilt from his parent’s bed, his father’s pocket knife, and the dream catcher his mother had made for him when he was born.
But the item that sent him over the edge as far as his tears were concerned was the wedding photo that had always sat on their nightstand. For the first time in over six years, he was staring into the faces of his parents. Johnny sat and stared at the picture before he finally lowered his head and sobbed. It was the first real outpouring of grief and loss that he had allowed himself to openly show since the night he had begged his mother not to die.
Quietly the adults in the room slipped away and had let him have some time alone with his grief and his memories. After he had managed to get himself under control, Vaska returned to the kitchen clutching a small photo album.
“We couldn’t find your parents’ photo album, and we were so afraid of being caught in your home, that we didn’t want to spend too much time searching….it was a quick grab and run and the only photo we found was the wedding photo… but I have a few here that I took of your family over the years… I would like you to have them.”
She handed Johnny the small maroon leather album and patted his shoulder.
Johnny flipped through the leaves of the album, and before his eyes small snippets of his life materialized in small black and white images. There was only about a half a dozen or so pictures, but they were more valuable to Johnny than pure gold. The handful of pictures included one of his parents holding him in their arms when he couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. There were a couple other shots of the three of them together when he was about two or three years old. And another that had been taken at what had been his seventh birthday. The very last picture in the album had been taken just a few weeks before his parents had died. It was of the three of them with father’s arms around his shoulder, as ten year old Johnny held up the belt buckle he had just one at his first rodeo. He gazed longingly at the last picture for almost five minutes before he gently closed the book and set it inside the trunk.
It was shortly after that, that Stojce had announced it was time for their final good-bye so they could get going. After several tearful hugs and kisses, Old Bill and the ranch owner loaded his gear into the back of the pickup and Stojce and Johnny had set off for Billings.
So here he sat beside the old woman on the bench, while the ranch owner purchased his bus ticket; with a large paper sack full of food that Vaska had insisted he take with him for the trip.
He was jolted back into the present by a touch on his arm. Apparently the old woman had asked him a question. Since he had no idea what the expected answer was, he just smiled and nodded noncommittally. He was saved from any further conversation when Stojce walked over and handed him his ticket.
“Your bus leaves in half an hour, John. You’ll have to change buses in Boise and Sacramento, but by tomorrow afternoon you should be safely in L.A. I told the agent you were my son and you were headed down to your Uncle’s place for a vacation,” he said with a conspiratorial wink. “Come on, I’ll buy you a burger and a shake while we’re waiting. Save the food Vaska packed for you for the trip.”
Stojce stayed with Johnny until the ticket agent indicated that it was time to get on board the bus, just in case someone should come up and start asking questions.
“Good luck son. You make sure you call or write to us regularly and let us know where you are and how you’re doing,” he said tearfully as he gave Johnny a final hug. Johnny promised that he would phone or write often, and then he quickly stepped on board the bus before his tenuous hold on his emotions gave out.
~ ~ ~
The ranch owner stood and watched as the bus pulled out of the station and headed off toward the interstate. In his heart he knew that none of them would ever again see the dark haired boy with the engaging smile and expressive dark eyes. He had no idea whether the boy would sink or swim now that he was completely on his own … but somehow, down in the depths of his soul, he suspected that the young man was destined to succeed. There was just something about him that he couldn’t quite put his finger on… but whatever that something was, he knew that it would lead the boy to success and what he hoped would be happiness. Lord knew no one deserved happiness more than he did.
~ ~ ~ ~
Sometimes there are things that occur in your life that happen so quickly and from so far out in left field that when you finally get a chance to stop and ponder them afterwards, you often wonder if it really happened or were you just dreaming it.
Those were the exact thoughts that were running around inside Johnny’s head as he sat on the edge of the precipice with his feet hanging over the edge of the cliff. It was the first time he had stopped to rest since midmorning and he made the most of this respite while he snacked on the last of the food Vaska had packed for him. Had it only been forty eight hours earlier that he had been getting ready to sneak out of the clinic and strike out on his own? It seemed like a lifetime ago to him.
The events of the last two days were hard for his mind to comprehend … mainly because they had happened at such a dizzying pace. And yet here he was sitting at the edge of his campsite breathing in the fresh air and watching the sun begin to sink lower into the Southern California sky.
Instead of riding the bus all the way into the city of Los Angeles, Johnny had gotten off the bus in Monrovia. The first thing he did was to stash his gear in a locker at the small bus station and buy some basic provisions of pre-packaged food. Next he phoned the rancher and his wife to let them know he had arrived safe and sound and that he would keep in touch with them regularly. After thanking them one more time for all they had done for him, he had hung up the phone, gathered up his gear and set off to make his way up into the San Gabriel Mountains. His only real plan at this point was to find a suitable place to establish his camp site and settle in.
He had walked for several miles along a popular and well-travelled hiking trail until almost two in the afternoon. It was at that point that he noticed a game trail that crossed the well maintained hiking path that created a natural fork on the trail in front of him.
The main path that was clearly marked for hikers to follow, forked off back down toward civilization, while the game trail continued on up into the mountains and the wilderness beyond. Johnny smiled to himself as he stepped onto the game trail and walked into the dense bush leaving the hiking path behind.
The early November air was unseasonably warm and the wind was gentle as Johnny reveled in the sense of release and freedom while he walked further and further into the forest. There had always been a black cloud of jeopardy hanging over his head that had been such a huge part of his life ever since his parents had died. The knowledge that he had finally left that life behind him once and for all was all he could think about as he climbed higher and higher into the hills… and man was it ever a good feeling.
He felt no trepidation or regret at his decision to strike out on his own. In fact the only emotions he was feeling at this moment were relief and excitement. The rest of his life lay stretched out ahead of him, and for the first time in his entire sixteen years, no one was out to hurt him. The best part of it all was the knowledge that the trees, the wind and water…even the animals here, wouldn’t judge him for the colour of his skin. They didn’t care about the heritage of his parents. Here in nature, he was fully accepted just as he was.
It was well past four in the afternoon and Johnny had hiked far into the area known as the Montane Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains. He paused to take a long cool drink from his canteen and take stock of where he was. It was at this point that he noticed that the game trail had almost petered out to nothing. He was just about to sit down to try and decide about which direction he should head next, when the sound of an eagle screeching overhead filled his ears. He slid the heavy metal-framed backpack off of his shoulders and let if fall onto the damp earth below and followed the sound of the raptor just off to his left.
He had just walked about hundred feet off the waning trail, when suddenly the trees thinned out and a small clearing on the edge of a massive ravine appeared in front of his eyes. There was an almost magical quality to the little space that took his breath away the moment he laid eyes upon it. The clearing stretched out for over twenty feet in front of him before the ground fell away with a drop of over two hundred feet that ended into a heavily wooded ravine below.
From this vantage point he glimpsed the eagle soaring majestically on the winds over the ravine. He could see for miles and miles from up here. His eyes took in the sight of the dark tufts of trees pushing up from the forest floor far below. He marveled at the picturesque mountain peaks and the lush tree-covered landscape undulating into the distant horizon. It was at that moment that he knew he wouldn’t be hiking any further.
He watched the eagle until it slowly disappeared from view miles off to the north. He heaved a deep sigh of contentment and turned back towards the cool dark trees to collect his gear. As he pivoted around, he was greeted with the sight of a large canyon oak tree on the edge of the clearing. Its long appendages were stretched out wide, giving the tree the appearance of that of a very old friend that was greeting him with a welcoming embrace. For some reason the old oak tree reminded him of White Eagle. It was a comforting thought that made him feel less alone somehow. Nature’s hug, Johnny thought warmly and he smiled to himself … finally he was home.
And so it was that Johnny settled into his new life. He had no problem adjusting to the gentle rhythms of the natural world around him. His camp was neat and tidy, and well stocked with provisions. He had been pleasantly surprised when he had opened up his tin of money upon his arrival to find a small note with an additional wad of cash stuffed inside the small box. The unsigned note simply said…Here’s a little extra cash to help out you along the way. Thanks to the extra cash, he had enough of the necessities of life to keep him comfortable for quite some time.
Every day Johnny gave thanks to the Almighty for smiling down upon him. The biggest blessing Johnny had received was the fact that the weather had been milder and drier than was usual for that time of year in Southern California. The usual rainy season had been late in coming which had initially made life so much easier for him.
He had made a point of not setting up his camp in the higher elevations in order to avoid the colder temperatures that existed at this time of year. To any resident of Southern California, the temperatures would have been considered cool. But to Johnny, who had been raised in Northern Montana, the temperatures were downright balmy for this time of year in his estimation.
Life continued on for Johnny at a relaxing pace and it had afforded him a lot of time to take stock of his situation and think about where it was he wanted to go next on this journey called Life. Although he still didn’t have every detail sorted out in his mind yet, he did have a small game plan worked out for his immediate future.
He had made the journey into Los Angeles just once, to restock his food supplies and scope out the city. It had taken a good chunk out of his money, but the supplies he had purchased, along with his natural acuity for wilderness survival, had meant he had more than enough to get by on for a few weeks.
He had decided that when the time came for him to restock, he would grab most of his gear and find a safe place to store it. Then he would find himself a few odd jobs here and there, until he had earned enough to replenish his food stores. He had decided to head into the heart of Los Angeles when the time came. The one thing he had taken note of on his previous visit into the city was the large number of vacant and abandoned buildings that would be a perfect place to crash for the night. Inside one of those abandoned buildings, he would be out of the elements and dry while he slept.
White Eagle had been right. The big city was a perfect place to blend in without anyone paying too much attention to you. Johnny figured he would have no trouble getting a few odd jobs during the day, and finding a place to flop during the nights until he had built up his cash supply once more. Beyond that he had no immediate plans.
He had no intention of looking for any permanent jobs until he was at least eighteen. It had been his experience that, for the most part, adults were an unpredictable lot. You could never trust on what kind of mood they were in, or what they might do should they discover an underage orphaned teenager living on the streets. Therefore any association with them on anything more than casual level was to be avoided at all costs… at least until he was eighteen. No, for the time being he would make brief sojourns into the city when he had to and then retreat back up here to the safety of his ‘home’.
Johnny’s favourite time of day was when the sun was just beginning to set in the evening. He loved to sit around his little camp fire, listening to the firewood snap and pop in the fading light of day. As the world around him began to sink into darkness, he would listen to the sounds of nature while he prepared to turn in for the night. The gentle breezes made the pine boughs whisper above his head. He could hear them through the canvas walls of the tent as he lay warm and cozy in his sleeping bag. It was almost as if they were telling him some long held secrets from their shadowy past. The mournful wind songs of the trees lulled him to sleep each night. They reminded him of the gentle songs his mother used to sing to him when he was a small boy curled up on her lap as she rocked him in her rocking chair; they would often bring tears to his eyes and a deep yearning in his soul as he drifted off to sleep with the memory of his mother’s voice in his ears.
So it was that time slowly passed by for Johnny. The days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, and not once had he bothered to try and keep track of time. Both Thanksgiving and Christmas had come and gone without notice in his little comfortable camp. He hadn’t celebrated Christmas since he was nine years old, and he was more than accustomed to the holiday slipping by totally unrecognized … and so it was that he had remained indifferent to its passing now.
He had watched the moon wax and wane three times since he had left Montana and taken up residence in the Southern California wilderness. It was in the third week of the brand new year when the customary rainy season finally arrived. The wet weather had also coincided with the depletion of Johnny’s hoard of food supplies.
Finally, as January turned into February, Johnny knew he couldn’t put off a trip into the city much longer. It was on a dull overcast morning, when the rains had abated for the time being, that he made the decision to go. It was the kind of a morning that caused a deep restlessness in Johnny’s soul … a yearning to go somewhere, even though he wasn’t quite sure where that somewhere was.
Maybe it was because, at the moment, everything he owned was damp from the relentless pounding rains of the night before. It certainly didn’t help that he was scrapping the bottom of the barrel as far as his pre-packaged food was concerned. But his biggest yearning was simply that he was desperate to find a YMCA where he could enjoy a nice long hot shower instead of the freezing cold baths he had been taking lately.
Whatever the reason, it was on the second day of February when Johnny packed up his gear and decided to head down into Los Angeles and look for work. He had decided that he would stay in the city working at odd jobs until the rainy season had ended in spring. Once the weather moderated and grew drier he would head back up to his little clearing in the woods once more. He figured not only would he be more comfortable in a dry abandoned building somewhere, it provided a nice little ancillary benefit of allowing him to stock pile some cash while he was there. And so he said good-bye temporarily to his campsite and headed down the little game trail towards the city of Los Angeles.
~ ~ ~
The first two weeks of February passed uneventfully for Johnny. Just as he had suspected, he hadn’t had any problems picking up odd jobs here and there that had allowed him to slowly accumulate a decent amount of earnings to his coffers.
It was during the fourth week of February that there had finally been a few consecutive days of sunny weather for a change. Johnny was taking a break from his current job while he enjoyed a glass of ice cold lemonade as he sat on the steps of the large mansion. He had been hired by a wealthy widow to do some yard work for her while her regular gardener was out with a sprained ankle.
It was the first time he had been to this part of Los Angeles. For the most part he had spent his time in the lower income areas working in small stores. So far his previous jobs had consisted of sweeping out storage rooms, stocking shelves, or washing dishes and windows.
He had enjoyed working outdoors for a change and the money the widow was paying him was what, in Johnny’s estimation, amounted to something akin to a fortune. The woman was paying him twenty dollars a day for his services, and at the end of three days she had given him not only the sixty dollars he had earned, but an additional fifteen dollar bonus because he had also repaired some loose boards on the side of her garage without being asked.
The job provided an extra perk in that while he was working there, he had been able to avail himself of the small room over her garage to sleep in. It was absolute luxury in Johnny’s eyes… the rich’s idea of slumming it was head and shoulders above anything he had ever known back on the reservation.
All too soon he had finished the work at the large estate and he reluctantly gathered up his things from the garage and said his good-byes to the woman. On his way back to the abandoned building he frequently called home, he had made the mistake of stopping into one of the more upscale bistros. He had decided to treat himself to a special meal to celebrate his good fortune. He never got his meal however, because the moment he walked through the doorway he was met with a room full of scornful stares. The well-to-do patrons all looked at him with derision. The meaning of their stares was clear…’Get out… you’re not welcome here…’ They had looked at him as if he were about to rob them all blind or beg for a free meal. Johnny very quickly turned on his heels and started back towards “his” side of town.
“Los Angeles… the city of angels,” Johnny muttered to himself as he walked along. He had never before seen anything like this city. It was a city made up of many strange dichotomies. The social status of its inhabitants ran the gamut from one extreme to the other.
Even though Johnny had been an outcast on the reservation, it had never had anything to do with money. On the reservation everyone was in the same socioeconomic boat… abject poverty.
But this city was a huge cornucopia of jumbled masses of all social ranks and stations. It was a living, breathing social commentary on a city that was overflowing with hubris and wealth that was sharing the space with the desperately poor and the destitute. They stood juxtaposed against each other like two disparate entities.
On the one hand you had the socially elite group, who practiced the ‘religion of the tangible’ … they drove Rolls Royce’s or Ferrari’s , and when they opened their car doors, you could literally hear the sound of wealth come pouring out of their rich leather interiors. They were surrounded by sycophants who stroked their egos when they went out to exclusive five star restaurants and clubs making business deals in their never ending quest to climb up one more rung on the ladder of temporal riches.
But one only had to drive a short span further in L.A. before you would run into its polar opposite. Here you found the downtrodden of society. There were some who were there because of time and circumstance. Those who were honest and hardworking who just wanted something better for themselves and their children, but whom life had held down. Some simply couldn’t afford the education to compete, some had come from a segment of society that had been unfairly labeled; some had mental issues. There were also others who had made bad life choices that had tossed them into the abyss of homelessness and addiction. And then there were the ones who simply didn’t want to try; they were simply content to live off of handouts.
But the most frightening of all of these groups were the predators and gangs… the dark criminal element that would prey on both the wealthy and the poor, who didn’t care who they took advantage of. They would rape, rob or even murder to get what they wanted. This was the group Johnny feared the most… it was also the group he would have the unfortunate pleasure of meeting before the day was over.
Johnny made his way down a quiet and well-kept street to a local mom and pop’s shop that stood on the corner. Despite the fact that it was located in one of the lower income neighbourhoods, it was obvious that the people on this street had at least made a concerted effort to keep their little corner of L.A. neat and tidy. Over the last two weeks, Johnny had gotten to know the owner of the store quite well. He was a jovial man in his late sixties, with a quick wit and a ready smile. His name was Clarence Miller and he had been the first person to give Johnny a job stocking shelves in his store. In fact Johnny had a standing job with Mr. Miller every Saturday. That was the day his supplier brought in the produce that would be stored or stocked on shelves for the following week. It was Johnny’s job to help unload the truck and put the produce away.
Clarence had also let Johnny use the safe in his back office to store any money he had earned, so he wouldn’t run the risk of losing it or having it stolen. That was the reason Johnny was headed there now. He was going to deposit sixty five of his seventy five dollars in the safe. The other ten would be used to buy his supper and pick up some new socks and a few snack food items that he could carry back to the abandoned warehouse with him.
It was just past five o’clock and already it was dark outside when Johnny entered the small restaurant that was located a few blocks from the warehouse that he usually took shelter in. Both the white and blue collar workers were all on the freeways heading home for the day, and the traffic was down to an irritable crawl. By six it would be at a total standstill.
Johnny made his way over to a quiet stall in the corner of the restaurant and ordered himself a bowl of vegetable soup, a BLT and a glass of milk. He was still quietly waiting for his order to appear, when the door of the restaurant opened up and three rather shady looking characters entered inside. They looked to be about nineteen or twenty, and everything about their demeanor suggested trouble. They were loud and aggressive and leered at the waitress while they hurled lewd comments in her direction.
They paused at the juke box and inserted a couple coins and pushed the desired buttons before they turned and made their way toward the back of the restaurant. Johnny did his best to appear invisible while he purposely kept his eyes averted down toward the top of the Formica table top. He hoped they would walk on past without taking any notice of him.
Unfortunately his efforts had been in vain, and his heart leapt into his throat when the group of thugs stopped next to his table. Suddenly the goon who was obviously the leader of the group glowered down at Johnny.
“Hey, Geronimo! Haul your scrawny ass outta there, that’s my booth and I don’t recall giving you permission to smell it up with your worthless hide ... Just who do you think you are anyway?” he growled menacingly.
The last thing Johnny wanted to do was get into a prolonged debate over whether or not they had any claim to the booth and, discretion being the part of valour, he simply mumbled a hurried, “Sorry,” while he quickly slid his body out of the booth and made his way up to the lunch counter that ran along the front of the restaurant.
It was just his luck that the owner of the restaurant had come out from the back after the waitress had run back to complain about the verbal abuse she had been subjected to at the hand of these punks and had overheard the entire exchange. The owner grabbed a bat from behind the counter and stormed back to the booth and glared at the three young men.
“Okay you guys, I just called the police and you’ve got about five minutes to get the hell out of here, so that young man can have his booth back. Otherwise I’m going to have you charged with disturbing the peace. Now haul your sorry asses out of here and don’t you ever come back… but before you go you’re going to apologize to that young man up there and to Janet for what you said to them,” he said pointing to the cowering waitress who was standing next to Johnny.
The leader of the bunch eyed the restaurant owner up and down, trying to decide if he was going to back down or challenge him. But considering the restaurant owner was built like a Peterbilt, and was still holding on to an aluminum bat, he sullenly stood up and shuffled up to the front of the establishment followed by his two cronies. At first it looked like he was going leave without apologizing to the waitress, but it was at that point that the door swung open and two uniformed police officers sauntered inside.
“Hey Tom, I heard there might be a bit of trouble brewing in here,” the first officer said as he made a point of looking at the leader of the thugs square in the eye.
“Well, that all depends Rob, on whether or not this gentlemen here is going to apologize to this boy and the young lady here for the crude names he called them,” the owner replied as he relaxed his hold on the bat.
The leader of the group looked coldly at not only the owner and the waitress, but at Johnny as well. The cold hard look in his eyes made Johnny’s blood run cold in his veins, but after a moment’s pause, the he hurriedly mumbled an apology and pushed his way toward the door.
“Remember what I said to you three… I don’t want to see you in here ever again,” Tom said to their retreating backs.
The officer named Rob held the door open and met the leader of the trio’s gaze with an uncompromising stare. “You heard the man, if I have to come back out here anymore because of any of you, you’ll be to spending some time in the crowbar hotel.”
The police officers watched the three hoodlums as they walked out into the streets, and they continued to do so until all three of them had turned the corner and were out of sight. Once they were satisfied that the troublemakers had left for good, they turned to face Johnny, Janet and Tom.
“I don’t think they’ll be back … you two alright?” they asked Johnny and Janet.
“Yes, sir,” Johnny answered with as casual a smile as he could muster; inside his stomach was twisting itself into knots. The last thing he needed now was for a well-meaning police officer to start asking him too many questions; after all he was an underage runaway himself with no fixed address, and no home to go to. Johnny decided to bid a hasty retreat back into the corner booth before they could quiz him any further. “I’ll just head back to my seat and wait for my order,” he said to the owner.
He made his way back to the rear of the restaurant without waiting for a reply. Upon hearing Johnny’s statement, the waitress wiped her hands on her apron and turned back toward the kitchen. “I’ll bring it right out to you sir,” she said with a shy smile before she disappeared behind the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the main part of the eating establishment.
Thankfully the two officers only stayed for a few minutes while they exchanged a few parting words with the owner. Johnny heaved a sigh of relief as he watched them leave. He sat back to enjoy his meal in peace.
Now that both the police officers and the thugs had left, Johnny was able to push the entire incident from his mind, and he further leaned back into the faded red naugahyde seat of the booth. He was beginning to feel drowsy and was almost on the verge of closing his eyes when Janet appeared with his meal and set it down on the table in front of him. The scent of the food wafted into his nose and Johnny suddenly realized that he was ravenous and he dug into his food with gusto.
A full belly, and a nice warm comfortable booth to sit in made Johnny reluctant to leave the eating establishment and go back to the cold damp warehouse, especially since it had started to drizzle out in the last half hour. Those were the main reasons why he ended up lingering at the restaurant much longer than he had originally intended to. It was six thirty and completely dark outside when he finally left the restaurant and headed for his home … if you could call an abandoned warehouse home.
He hadn’t thought to bring the rain coat he had purchased with him to the mansion house this morning because it had been sunny, so he now had to walk without the benefit of anything other than his long sleeved shirt to keep him dry until he got back to Mr. Miller’s. He had left his rucksack with the gear he used on a daily basis back in Mr. Miller’s storage room until he had had his supper. He knew the shop stayed open until seven and he was only a ten minute walk away … he had plenty of time to get there and collect his gear before he closed up shop.
Johnny had been so preoccupied with trying to get to Miller’s shop as quickly as he could while trying to keep as dry that he hadn’t noticed the three shadowy figures that were surreptitiously following him at a distance.
The noise behind him didn’t register in his mind until it was too late. The three men bore down upon him with amazing speed, and an instant later a violent blow sent Johnny sprawling against a brick wall knocking the air out of his lungs and splitting open the skin above his left eye. It was at that point that Johnny felt a hand reach around and grab the back of his neck with a force so hard that he was certain that the next sound he heard would be the sound of the bones in his neck being crushed. He was aware of the sounds of laughter behind his back, as one of his attackers threw him to the ground and planted a well-placed kick to his rib cage.
“It may be too dangerous for us to go back and pay back the old man at the restaurant, but no one will give a damn about you, Geronimo,” hissed the leader of the group. “I wanna make one thing perfectly clear to you before I kill you, you snot nosed little savage… Ricky Johnson never apologizes to anyone...”he hissed. “Now, before I gut you and leave you here to die… hand over your wallet, and then beg for my forgiveness for making me have to apologize to you.”
Normally anyone who had been attacked in such a violent manor probably would have been in so much fear and shock that they would have been too paralyzed to react. But what the three attackers didn’t realize was that this kind of attack wasn’t new to their victim. Johnny had been dodging attacks and blows ever since the age of ten, and over time he had developed a highly tuned survival instinct. Johnny curled himself into the fetal position in an effort to protect his ribs and stomach from taking any further abuse.
Suddenly he heard a sound that made his blood run cold… he heard the unmistakable click of what he knew was the sound of a switchblade being flicked open. He immediately rolled over onto his back and raised his arm up into a defensive position just as the blade came slashing towards him. Johnny bit back a scream as the blade made contact with the flesh of his forearm, slicing open a six inch long gash.
The blow he had taken to his ribs in combination with knife wound became too much for Johnny’s stomach and it chose that exact moment to rebel. He felt the hot sour bile rise into the back of his throat and he barely has a chance to make it over onto his side before he lost his recently consumed meal all over the pavement at the feet of his attackers.
The spreading pool of vomitus surprised the attackers who quickly jumped back to avoid getting any of it on themselves… It gave Johnny the vital seconds he needed to make his escape.
Seizing this window of opportunity, Johnny ignored the pain and discomfort he was feeling and he quickly sprang to his feet and flung his body forward.
Instinctively the man closest to him dodged to the side, allowing him the opening he needed to slip past his would be killers and take off up the street.
Johnny could hear the group cursing at him, as they took up the chase to recapture their prey. And that’s exactly what Johnny felt like…a rabbit running from a pack of wolves. But unlike nature, these were animals of a whole different ilk. These predators were not hunting for survival… they were hunting for the sheer joy of the kill. That knowledge spurred Johnny on with the fear of someone who instinctively knew that he was just a few seconds away from almost certain death. His fear of being caught was far greater than the pain he felt, and it was that fear that kept Johnny running.
Johnny kept on running for several blocks... and he continued to keep going full speed long after his pursuers had given up the chase. Finally when he could run no more, and he was sure that he had lost his pursuers, Johnny stopped and collapsed onto the ground and retched once more.
He lay on the cold wet pavement for several moments trying to calm himself down and regain his bearings. He looked down in dismay at the blood that was soaking his shirt sleeve…Damn it. What am I gonna do now? After going over his options inside his head, he decided his best bet would be to just go and find someplace safe where he could try and clean himself up.
He knew he was probably too late to make it back to Mr. Miller’s store now… besides, he didn’t want to risk going back in that direction with those three goons still hanging around.
He gingerly pushed himself up into a seated position and waited for the lightheaded feeling to pass. Finally he decided to just head back to the abandoned warehouse and try and nurse his wounds as best he could.
Slowly he trudged up the street, making his way towards the abandoned building he called home. But the pain and shock were taking its toll on his body and he found his strength and resolve giving out. He was just about to give up when he saw a plain brick building across the street with a sign over the door that simply read…
Open 10 am to 10 pm Monday thru Friday
Soup and sandwiches available between 5 pm and 8 pm.
Johnny immediately changed direction, made his way across the street and quietly slipped through the open door of the youth mission. He hadn’t realized how cold he was, until he felt the warmth of the heated air sweep over him the moment he entered the large room. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the bright lights after being outside in the dark for so long, but once he could see clearly it became obvious he was in a large common room. The brightly lit room contained two large sofas with a black and white television sitting on a beat up coffee table. There were a couple of teenage girls who were both engrossed in the program that was currently on TV.
Beyond that there was a pool table and a ping pong table near the back wall, both of which were in use by several boys who appeared to be around the same age as Johnny. In a battered leather chair in the opposite corner, there was a boy of about seventeen, leaning toward a low table. Spread out in front of him on the table were several open text books. He was obviously being tutored by another slightly older boy who was looking over his shoulder at his work. None of them paid any attention to the new arrival in the room.
On the other side of the room there was a kitchenette with several long tables that had benches running up either side. Standing in the kitchenette, with her back toward Johnny, was a grey haired woman who was standing in front of the sink washing a stack of dishes. Standing beside her was a younger dark haired man who was drying some plates. Both of them were engaged in conversation and hadn’t noticed Johnny enter.
Johnny took a step further into the room and began to scan its interior looking for a bathroom he could use to clean himself up a bit, and perhaps after that he could get a drink of something warm. Johnny looked the room over several times … if there was a restroom, it certainly wasn’t in this room. Gathering up his all his nerve, he walked up behind to the two adults that were doing dishes and cleared his throat in an effort to get their attention. When that didn’t work he reached out with his uninjured arm and tapped the dark haired man on the shoulder.
“Excuse me sir, but could you please tell me if there is a bathroom around here that I could use?”
Both adults turned around and caught a glimpse of the dark haired boy before them. He had a large gash over one of his eyes, was bent over at the waist guarding his ribs and was extremely pale and looked like he was on the verge of fainting. But what shocked them most was the sight of his right forearm. It was covered in blood and had completely soaked through the sleeve of his plaid flannel shirt.
Both of the adults stopped what they were doing and ran to Johnny’s side.
They steered him towards the long table in front of them, forcing him down onto one of the benches, and started to roll up the blood soaked sleeve so they could see the injury. The entire time the woman was asking him questions.
“Land sakes child, who did this to you? … Gary,” she said turning to the dark haired man, “run upstairs and ask Wayne to please come down here now.”
Turning back to Johnny she continued to fuss over him. “What’s your name child, and where do you live? We’ll need to get your folks down here to pick you up.”
Upon hearing those words, Johnny began to panic and he tried to stand back up so he could leave.
“Um … no ma’am… it’s okay really. My folks aren’t home right now…I just wanted to use the bathroom. It’s really not that bad,” he said indicating his arm. “I’ll just go now,” he finished as he continued to try and get to his feet.
Upon seeing Johnny’s reaction to her questions the woman changed her tact with her charge.
“Well if your folks ain’t home you had better stay here until they are…there’s no way I’m letting you leave in this condition. What’s your name… are you hungry?”
Johnny was in a blind panic. There was no way he wanted to give his name and have someone discover his secret. There was also no way in hell he was going to let anyone send him back to the reservation. He began to search his mind for a name to give the woman, but the only name he could think of was Old Bill’s. In an act of desperation he blurted out; “Billy… my name’s Billy Kennedy, ma’am, and I’m eighteen,” he lied.
The woman looked him over appraisingly and just nodded her head. By that time the dark haired man had returned with another man who looked to be in his late sixties or early seventies.
“What do you have here, Marian?” the older man asked.
“Well Wayne, this here is Billy Kennedy, and it appears he got tangled up with someone who wasn’t all that friendly. He needs a bit of doctoring up.”
By this time they had attracted a crowd. It always amazed Johnny how strangers seemed to appear out of the woodwork the moment they sensed there was anything interesting to look at.
“Do you know who did this to you son?” Wayne asked him.
Johnny shook his head. “No… there were three of them and they wanted my wallet. The only name I heard was the name of the one who cut me… he said his name was Ricky Johnson.” A few of the kids standing around shook their heads knowingly.
“Look I’m really okay, if you’ll just let me use your bathroom, I’ll clean up a bit and be on my way,” Johnny said as he made another effort to stand up.
“You’ll do no such thing, Billy,” the woman called Marian said as she pushed him back down. “You’re going to sit right there while Doc here looks at those wounds. And I’m going to go over there and get you some hot soup and a sandwich, while he’s tending to you… and the rest of you,” she said looking at the gathering crowd, “you just go back to what you were doing and give this boy some room to breathe.”
The kids ambled back to their previous activities while the older man examined Johnny’s injuries. He poked and prodded Johnny for a few moments, before he shook his head. “It’s no good Marian; I’ll need to take him upstairs where I can examine him more closely. This arm and that gash on his head are gonna need some stitches. And I’d like to check those ribs a little more closely too.”
Johnny looked up in confusion. “Upstairs?” he questioned nervously.
The dark haired man laughed. “Don’t worry about it, Billy. Doc here is a retired sawbones. But he still has a license to practice medicine. He runs a clinic from an office upstairs for the locals. He’ll fix you up in time.”
Just then a gangly youth who was leaning casually against the ping pong table called out, “Hey Preacher, you about ready to play ping pong … or do you just want to concede defeat now?”
The dark haired man grinned and stuck his hand out toward Johnny. “My real name is Gary Stead. I’m the youth pastor over at the Baptist church, but most of the kids around here just call me Preacher. It’s good to meet you Billy, as soon as you’re fixed up and had a chance to eat, I’ll introduce you to everyone.” Gary shook Johnny’s hand and threw the doctor a knowing wink before he made his way over to the ping pong table.
The good doctor patted Johnny on the shoulder. “Well Billy, let’s get you upstairs so I can get you cleaned up a bit and take a closer look at your injuries.”
Johnny shook his head and pulled his arm out of the doctors grasp. “Me and my family… we can’t afford any doctors bills. If you could give me a band aid or two I have about six dollars on me, so I could pay you for them.”
The good doctor chuckled and squatted down in front of Johnny. “First of all son, I run a free clinic, we operate on donations, so it won’t cost you a dime. Folks pay what they can, and if they can’t pay anything, then that’s okay too. Second of all, a few band aids aren’t going to help you with these injuries. That gash on your arm is going to need quite a few stitches. Now don’t you concern yourself about it … you just come with me and let me fix you up.”
Without waiting for an answer he pulled Johnny to his feet and started to lead him to the door. As he neared the door he called back over his shoulder, “I’ll bring him back down when I’m finished, Marian, and then he’s all yours to feed.” He glanced at Johnny and smiled sadly. “Looks like he’s missed a couple of meals along the way… one good stiff breeze would blow him clean off his feet.”
Marian turned and nodded with a smiled at Johnny. “You just come on back down here, Billy, and I’ll have your supper waiting.”
It took nearly forty five minutes for the doctor to put in five stitches in Johnny’s forehead and another eighteen in his arm. The knife had gone deep enough that it had required stitches, but not deep enough to do any serious damage. It had also been decided that his ribs were bruised, but they were not broken or cracked. The doctor had declared Johnny’s shirt to be beyond saving and had tossed it away. He had managed to produce a faded blue sweatshirt from another room and gave it to Johnny to put on.
“Marian has a barrel of clothes and shoes back there, just in case one of her kids needs something. Now before you go down and get your supper, how about you give me the names of your folks, and your phone number so I can at least let them know you’re safe. Then we’ll see about getting you a ride home.”
Johnny began to fidget nervously as he replied, “Ummm, my folks work the night shift… they won’t be home so they won’t be worried. Thanks for fixing me up and all, but I can just walk home after I get something to eat. There’s really no need to call anyone.”
The doctor eyed him suspiciously. “Well okay,” he said slowly. “But you did suffer a trauma tonight and I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to walk home … besides whoever did this to you is still out there. I won’t call your folks, but I insist on getting Gary to give you a ride home. Now I’m going to get you a sling for that arm. I don’t want you using it for a day or so, until that skin starts to knit together again. Then we’ll go back downstairs and you can get your meal, and you can give Gary your address so we can take you home.”
The doctor went into another room to retrieve the sling, but continued talking to his patient. “You come back in about ten days and I’ll remove those stiches for you, Billy.” When he got no answer he continued talking. “I can promise you, you’re going to love Marian’s food…she makes the best soup around. I’m kinda partial to her cream of broccoli soup myself, and as for her homemade pies, let me tell you…” his voice trailed off as he re-entered the examination room. The gurney was now empty and his patient was nowhere to be seen.
~ ~ ~
Johnny sighed in relief as he slipped out the door that led up to the doctor’s office. It had been a narrow escape. He didn’t know what he would have done if someone had pushed him for an address. He was just grateful that the doctor had stepped out of the room long enough for him to make his getaway. Still… a good hot meal would have been nice. He had vomited up his last meal, and he was starting to get hungry. But he was also bone tired after the evening he had just gone through, and he figured his best bet was to just make his way back to the abandoned warehouse and try and get some sleep.
~ ~ ~
Johnny sat and stared at the flickering embers while he sipped at his coffee. The heat from the beverage seeped through the tin cup and warmed his cold hands. He had gotten used to drinking his coffee black with no sugar these past few weeks, and had even grown to prefer the rich flavour of the brew untainted with sugar or cream. On the streets, there were no refrigerators to keep milk cold, and sugar wasn’t something that was easy for the homeless to cart around from place to place, so he had learned to do without them. On the way back to the warehouse, he had made a quick stop at a small convenience store and purchased a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, along with a can of Pepsi to take back to the abandoned warehouse.
Johnny wasn’t the only person who had taken up residence at this particular warehouse. He regularly shared it with three other men, and it was not unusual to barter with one of the other men for food or drink. Tonight he had exchanged some of his bread and peanut butter for a tin mug full of hot coffee and an apple.
He had actually gotten quite friendly with his fellow vagrants and was thankful for their company. Somehow it made him feel a little less alone in the world when they were around. They ranged in age from their late fifties to mid-sixties and had definitely seen better days. Over the course of this past month, he had heard the sad stories of each of these men’s past.
The first of his new friends was named Edgar. Edgar had been a travelling salesman in his younger days. One day he returned home from one of his excursions only to discover that some weeks earlier his wife and four children had burned to death in a house fire while he had been out on the road. When the authorities hadn’t been able to locate Edgar they had gone ahead and buried his wife and children without him. Edgar had been so despondent over the loss of his entire family that he had given up on life and took to riding the rails until both age and modern technology made it too difficult. These days he wandered from city to city, just putting in time until he died.
Edgar had a slightly weather beaten look to him, and he reminded Johnny of a little old man that had been left out in the rain too long, and so he had shriveled up into the person he was now. Johnny tried to form a picture in his mind of what Edgar must have looked like when he had been a young man in his twenties, but his imagination just didn’t stretch that far, and so he gave up the task as futile. All those years of hard living had long since erased any trace of the young man Edgar had once been.
Next came Hal; Hal was a happy go lucky soul. In the 1920’s and 30’s, he had been a song and dance man in the dying days of Vaudeville. But by the mid-1930’s Vaudeville had given way to the motion picture industry and Hal had never been able to make the leap from the stage to movies. He had ended up working as a janitor at one of the same theatres he had once headlined in a decade earlier. He was just another forgotten has-been in an industry that tended to devour their own once they ceased to bring in money. He had eventually just wandered off, picking up odd jobs here and there whenever he could. He had never married and was all alone in the world. Yet even now his manners were overly solicitous, and each of his movements was deliberate and precise. He enunciated each syllable of every word and his diction was flawless. When he told a story, his hands moved with great theatrical flourishes and he often spent his evenings regaling them with tales of his glorious days on the stage.
The last of the trio was Milton. He was the hardest one to get to know. He tended to be the most secretive and solitary of the three men. He was a quiet intellectual who had, before the war, been a history teacher. He had been captured by the Japanese and had spent most of his time during the Second World War in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He had been exposed to countless atrocities during his time as a POW. He had witnessed one horrific death too many at the hands of the enemy, and he had never fully recovered from the experience. Upon his return to the United States he had struggled to pick up the pieces of his life, and he had spent the rest of his life drifting from place to place in search of the peace that always seemed to elude him.
Right now the three of them had fashioned a kind of fork out of a bent coat hanger and they were taking turns trying to toast their bread over the embers so the peanut butter would melt into the bread. Milton had dragged in an old truck tire rim he had found out in the alley behind the building, and he had positioned it on a small concrete slab on the floor of the warehouse. Inside the rim they had lit a small fire to use for cooking and warmth. Each man took care to watch out for sparks floating in the air that might ignite the dry timbers inside the abandoned building.
So here they sat around their small fire, four outcasts from society.
Johnny, the sixteen year old orphan who had been disenfranchised by his people, the victim of bigotry, abuse, and ignorance; Edgar who had lost everything he had ever held dear, and was now just running out his time on earth; Hal who had once found fame on the stage, but had been tossed aside and left behind when the age of the moving pictures had dawned; and Milton, who was haunted by the ghosts of a war that had never ended for him.
The three men had been in remarkably good spirits tonight and they were currently amusing themselves with a friendly rivalry over which one of them had the best technique when it came to toasting their bread over the embers of their small fire. Johnny had been quiet tonight and had not joined in on the conversation.
When he had arrived at the warehouse shortly before eight, the others had noticed that he was missing most of his gear and had to make do with what was in the small rucksack he had hidden behind an old furnace in the basement of the building. Inside his rucksack he had his sleeping bag, an extra shirt, a pair of dry socks, and a few old magazines he was fond of thumbing through.
He hadn’t been by the warehouse for a few days now. All three of them had noticed his injuries when he had arrived, but had not mentioned them. For his part Johnny hadn’t explained the stitches on his forehead or arm, or the growing bruise on the side of his face. But that was the unwritten and accepted rule with the homeless. A person was allowed to have their secrets without having to face any uncomfortable questions, and if they wanted to go off into a corner and silently brood… well that was just fine, too. They’d all had their sad stories and they were all allowed to have their bad days. So if Johnny wasn’t in the mood to talk, no one was about to press him for an explanation. He was more than welcome to sit near the warmth of their little fire in silence.
It was past ten o’clock, and the freezing in Johnny’s arm had long since worn off. Now that he’d had some food and something warm to drink, the exhaustion he had felt earlier returned with a vengeance, along with a throbbing ache in his arm. He drank down the last mouthful of his coffee, handed the empty mug back to Edgar, and quietly excused himself. The only thing Johnny wanted now was some peace and quiet so that he could stretch out and get some sleep.
One look at his three companions, and Johnny could tell they were gearing up for one of their late night gab sessions. He also noticed that Milton had acquired a bottle of whiskey from somewhere, and it was obvious that the three of them were getting ready to pass the bottle around. Johnny loathed strong liquor and he hated the sight of anyone drunk, so he gathered up his sleeping bag and his rucksack and slipped into the empty office that was located near the front entrance of the warehouse where it was dark and quiet. The only illumination in the tiny room came from the flashes of light that shone through the windows from the headlights of an occasional passing car.
Johnny unrolled his sleeping bag, crawled inside and burrowed deep into the down filled material. He sighed in relief at finally being able to lie down and close his eyes … he fell into a deep restful slumber the moment his head hit the floor.
~ ~ ~
Johnny sensed the fire long before he came around to full wakefulness. When he finally did rouse from sleep he found his lungs being choked from the thick acrid smoke and the oppressive heat of the flames. He began to cough uncontrollably as he ran out of fresh air to breathe and he couldn’t see anything but a glow from the fire that was burning just outside the office door. His eyes burned and he felt sick as he realized he had no way out of the building. The only exit out of the room was blocked by fire.
Had his mind been clearer, he would have remembered the window that was located higher up on the office wall, but his senses were dulled because of the smoke inhalation, and so instead of looking for an alternate way out, he simply crawled into the furthest corner away from the door to await his inevitable fate.
He felt strangely calm as he lay in the corner looking at the flames. This is it, I’m going to die, he thought to himself. Had this been how it was for his mother and father at the moment they realized that they were at the end of their lives here on earth? Suddenly he felt an overwhelming sense of peace at the thought that any minute now he would be back with his mother and father once more. He calmly lay down and waited for death to claim him… he prayed that the smoke would kill him before the flames reached his body. He never heard the sound of shattering glass that came from the window above his head.
He was just on the verge of losing consciousness when he dimly became aware of another presence in the room with him. He looked up to see a large figure standing over him with what appeared to be an axe over his shoulder. The figure bent over and reached for him, and it was at that moment that a hazy memory flashed through Johnny’s confused mind. Suddenly the figure standing over him changed and it was no longer a stranger with an axe, but his grandfather standing over him with a crazed look of rage in his eyes. What had been an axe a moment earlier was now a baseball bat. Suddenly he was no longer in the warehouse, but he was back in his grandparent’s woodshed, and it was the night he had been attacked. The entire night of his sixteenth birthday came rushing back in a flood of memories. He made a feeble attempt to ward off his grandfather’s blows by raising his injured arm. He was both surprised and confused when the figure looming above him didn’t strike him, but instead he bent down and flung Johnny over his shoulder.
Johnny’s last coherent thought was to reach out and grasp hold of his rucksack as the man stood up and carried him over to the window, where he was passed to another man that was waiting on a ladder. Johnny watched the fireman carry him down the ladder with detached interest while he continued to cough and gasp in an attempt to draw in a decent lungful of the cool night air.
He was vaguely aware of being carried across the parking lot, but he lost the battle to remain conscious just moments before the fire fighter managed to lay him down on a sheet and slip an oxygen mask over his face.
~ ~ ~
Johnny lay in his hospital bed and stared at the rivulets of rain water that were running down the window pane in miniature streams. He could hear the sound of distant thunder through the thick glass of the window. He looked down at the IV that was running into his left arm and the glass bottle that was hanging on the metal pole above his head. He began to count the drops that were slowly dripping a steady stream of antibiotics into his veins.
It hadn’t been until the morning after the fire that Johnny had found out that he had been the lone survivor of the warehouse fire. Johnny was no stranger to death, but it still made him sad to think that Edgar, Hal and Milton were gone. He hoped that all three of his friends had finally found some peace.
It had been four days since he had been brought in and admitted to St. Francis hospital. So far he had been visited by the police, social and family services and all three of the adults from the youth mission; not to mention the constant attention he was receiving from the doctors and nurses. He had been poked, prodded and examined in every nook and cranny, and he was positive he had had something stuck in every single orifice of his body. In fact he seldom had a moment alone to himself.
Johnny was beginning to despair of ever having an opportunity to escape this place. For the first time in his life he almost wished for the cold indifference of the doctors and nurses in the reservation clinic… escaping from those places had been a piece of cake. Here people were actually worried about him, and consequently they were watching him like a hawk. The warehouse fire had been all over the news, and the reports that a teenage boy had been pulled out of the burning building alive had been the lead story for the first two days.
Johnny had been brought in with a severe case of smoke inhalation, and by the next day his already weakened system had developed pneumonia, which had accounted for his extended stay in the hospital.
Johnny had refused to give anyone his name or age, and so a description of the unknown teenager had been released to the media. The description had included the fact that Johnny was in his mid-teens and appeared to be of Native American descent. The report had also included the fact that he had apparently sustained a previous injury to his right forearm and forehead that had been recently stitched up.
It had been that information that had brought the adults from the youth mission to the hospital. Johnny himself hadn’t uttered a word since he had been brought in, but thanks to the folks from the mission, he was now listed under the name of Billy Kennedy, because that’s what the people at the youth mission had known him by. Johnny was content to let the name stick, because there was no way in hell he was going to go back to Montana. Besides, he had every intention of getting out of there the very first chance he got.
Attempts had been made to locate his family, but so far any police searches for a missing teenage runaway by the name of Billy Kennedy had come up short. The only person in Los Angeles who knew his real name was Mr. Miller, and thankfully he hadn’t shown up at the hospital. Johnny just prayed to God that Mr. Miller would keep his secret.
Johnny had decided that he would continue to invoke his right to remain silent, and apart from telling the police what little he knew about the three dead vagabonds in the warehouse, he had remained reticent.
The evidence at the scene, along with the autopsies had corroborated Johnny’s version of the events of the night of the fire. All three men were found to have a high alcohol content in their systems and it had been determined that they had gotten drunk and passed out, letting sparks from their fire catch onto the dry timbers which had ignited the warehouse.
The only other time Johnny had spoken was when the fireman who had saved his life stopped by to visit him. Johnny’s memories of his rescue from the warehouse had been sketchy at best. He had remembered being taken out of the building, but then things got kind of foggy for a while.
He had returned to consciousness while on the ground outside the warehouse. There had been a man leaning over him holding the oxygen mask in place over his mouth and nose. He had been aware that the man was speaking to him, but Johnny wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying. Johnny had been mesmerized by the scene that was unfolding all around him.
There had been at least half a dozen fire engines with lights flashing and sirens blaring in the warehouse parking lot, and he had counted at least a dozen men in turnout gear manning the hoses. There was a man in a white helmet issuing orders to all of the men. Some of the men were on the ground but there were two of them on ladders and several others had axes, and they were using the butt ends of those axes to break the glass out of the warehouse windows so they could get the water from the hoses into the building’s interior.
The excitement and energy of these men was actually palpable and Johnny felt an inexplicable adrenaline rush as he watched these men battle the flames.
The entire scene had an odd dreamlike quality to it. To Johnny, these mens’ movements were like watching an intricate dance of organized chaos, and for some unexplained reason, Johnny felt an overwhelming urge to get up and join the men in their battle with the fiery beast.
He was still fairly dazed and confused, which gave the entire scene an almost surreal feeling, and he was so preoccupied with what was happening all around him that he didn’t notice the fireman come up from the other side of him and lean down next his supine body.
“How’s he doing, Lyle?” asked a man with sandy brown hair and laughing blue eyes.
“He’s going to be fine, Jack,” his caregiver answered. “He’s most likely going to have to spend a day or so in the hospital, but after a couple of breathing treatments, he’ll be good as new.”
The fireman smiled and patted his shoulder kindly. “That’s great news, Lyle. I’d hate to think I hauled his scrawny ass out of that fire for nothing,” Jack said as he looked down at Johnny and gave him a wink and a sly grin. “I’ll come over to St Francis and see how you’re doing tomorrow kid… you just lay back and take it easy okay? I gotta get back over there and show those boys how a real fireman extinguishes a fire.”
Johnny watched the man jog over to join his fellow firefighters. He reached up and pulled aside the oxygen mask so he could talk. “Who was that?” he rasped out.
The man tending to him pulled his hand away from the mask and put it back over his nose and mouth. “Hey now, you just leave that on, you need that oxygen son … that was the guy who went into that mess and found you. He was the one who got you outta there alive. His name is Jack Flynn and he’s practically a legend. He’s a firefighter and a rescue man. He works out of Station 17. He’s one hell of a rescue man, and he just saved your life son. Now how about you lay back and let that oxygen do its job.”
Johnny had a million more questions he wanted to ask the man bout his rescuer, but there wasn’t any more time, because it was right at that moment that the ambulance arrived and Johnny had been whisked away into the back of the vehicle by the two attendants and transported to the hospital.
As Johnny lay in his hospital bed, he couldn’t help but wish that Jack Flynn would come back and visit him again… he wanted to find out what someone had to do to become a rescue fireman. He suddenly had a desire to be exactly like Jack. He made a mental note to find out where Station 17 was located once he busted out of this joint.
As it turned out, Johnny’s opportunity to escape never materialized. Unlike the other hospitals and clinics Johnny had been in, this one kept a closer eye on its residents. It didn’t help that Johnny’s room was situated directly across from the nurse’s desk on the pediatric ward of the hospital, and unfortunately there was always a nurse stationed there 24/7. To make matters worse the staff had been told to keep an eye on him so he didn’t make a run for it as he had done from the doctor at the clinic earlier that week.
~ ~ ~
Over the next three days, Johnny’s condition improved to the point that, if he had had a home to go to, he would have been released. But Johnny’s doctor, Dr. Dennis Turner, was reluctant to release him knowing that once he released his patient, there was a better than average chance that he would bolt and never be seen again.
Not only would he not have the proper follow up care, but it was doubtful he would even get his prescription for antibiotics filled.
Dr. Turner knew that social and family services would either place him in a foster home or, because of his age, he’d be sent to a group home. Either way, the system was overtaxed and it was unlikely they would follow him closely … and the boy would simply run again.
~ ~ ~
For the past week Johnny had been visited several times by the woman named Marian. She had gone out of her way to bring him food that she had made herself. She had fussed and fawned over him as if he were her own son. Johnny wasn’t sure what to do with all the attention. As much as he enjoyed her food, and the kindness, he was still on guard and ill at ease whenever she came to see him.
It had frustrated the adults around him that not one of them could reach him enough to gain his trust. Whenever anyone spoke to him, he would eye them warily and give them nothing but monosyllabic replies. The rest of the time he remained silent and resentful of their constant monitoring of him.
The only exception to the rule was Jack Flynn, the firefighter who had saved his life. Jack was the one visitor he was always happy to see. Over the past week, the firefighter had paid him a couple visits. It seemed that the fireman had developed a soft spot for the homeless kid he had pulled out of the warehouse, and his visits never failed to bring a smile to Johnny’s face. It was the only time Johnny came out of his shell and showed any spark of life.
Johnny couldn’t get enough of Jack’s stories about his daring rescues and all the fires he had battled on a daily basis. It also helped that Jack had a bit of a rakish humour, and would entertain Johnny with off-colour jokes and dirty limericks whenever they were alone. But for as much as he enjoyed Jack’s visits, he still refused to confide his true identity to the man.
~ ~ ~
Johnny drowsed in the luxuriously warm bed as he listened to the sounds of the hospital. There really wasn’t anything else for him to do while he waited for his lunch to be served. He wondered if that lady, Marian, would be bringing him in any food today. She certainly seemed like a nice enough lady, but as far as he was concerned she still belonged to the ‘system’ and therefore she couldn’t be trusted. She had tried to pry his real name out of him, but Johnny was adamant. He wasn’t going back to Montana and so his name would remain a secret… even from Jack.
Johnny was still listening mindlessly to the snippets of conversations he could overhear drifting in from the halls when he suddenly heard his name being mentioned… or at least the name he was currently using. He sat up straight and pushed back the covers so he could slip out of bed. He quietly made his way over to the door and opened it ever so slightly so he could hear what was being said about him a little more clearly.
He recognized the voices out in the hall as belonging to Dr. Turner, the lady named Marian, and Mrs. Isabelle Weston, the social worker in charge of his case. Johnny pressed his ear up to the crack in the door and listened to what they were saying …
“So Dr. Turner, why hasn’t Billy Kennedy been released into our custody yet? You said yourself he was better. We have a placement all set up for him in one of our group homes. He’ll get a bed, food, clothing and some proper schooling. The judge has already signed the necessary papers that make him a temporary ward of the state. There is a hearing in family court at the end of the week, at which time, unless we can locate any family, he will be made a permanent ward of the state until his eighteenth birthday.”
“Look, Mrs. Weston, as Billy’s physician I’m not comfortable releasing him until he has finished the entire course of antibiotics. I have my doubts that he’ll be vigilant about finishing them once he leaves here … even if he is in a group home. And I also don’t think that a group home is the best fit for Billy. I think what Billy needs most is to be a part of a permanent and stable home environment.”
“Dr. Turner, I can assure you that the group home administrator is more than capable of seeing that Billy takes his medication as prescribed. Our facilities have passed stringent guidelines and while I agree all our boys would be better served in a family environment, Billy will certainly be far better off in the group home than he would be out on the streets.”
“Believe me, Mrs. Weston, I am not saying that your group home isn’t run efficiently. I just think, in this boy’s case, he wouldn’t do well in a group home. I feel that this boy has experienced some things in his past that a group home would only exacerbate. I think rather than giving him a sense of belonging or security, it would only alienate him more. You know there is always a social hierarchy in any kind of institution, and a group home is no different. I just don’t think this boy has the emotional acuity at this point to handle that kind of environment. I get the feeling he hasn’t had much interaction with his peers, and I can’t help thinking that placing him in a group home would be like throwing him to the lions.”
“What are you implying Doctor? Are you saying that the boy has been traumatized?”
“What I think, Mrs. Weston, is that he has been a victim of severe abuse and neglect. At this point I can’t say for sure who has inflicted the abuse, but I am assuming it must be a parent, or guardian of some kind. I also think it has gone on for quite some time without being reported. I think what has probably happened is that it got so bad, that the boy decided to make a break for it.”
“Surely if he had been abused that badly Doctor, someone would have noticed it and reported it by now… either a nurse or a doctor, or a teacher….”
“Not necessarily. Now I’m only guessing mind you, but he is obviously Native American, and from what I know about life on the reservations, abuse and neglect are not uncommon issues. I have the strongest hunch that that is what we are looking at in Billy’s case. And if I am right, then the last thing he needs is to be sent back there. But at the same time, if he has been on a reservation this entire time, then he will need to be integrated into the big city lifestyle slowly, and tossing him into a group home would do more harm than good.”
“How certain are you that Billy has been abused Doctor… do you have any concrete physical evidence? If you do have concrete evidence of physical abuse, the court will need to be informed. How can you be certain he just isn’t a disgruntled teenager who got tired of following the rules at home and decided to leave, rather than follow his parents’ rules?”
“I can assure you, Mrs. Weston; no normal child wants to be homeless. No child chooses to live in an abandoned warehouse and risk getting beaten up and knifed by street thugs if there are better options available. Not unless something has happened to them at home that was so terrible that it drives them to think they have no other options. Damn it Isabelle, this boy isn’t hiding his true identity because he’s being insolent; he’s hiding because he’s terrified to return to whatever it was he escaped from.The physical and emotional signs all point to abuse. The skull series I took the night he was brought in clearly showed that he’s had a recent skull fracture… and a bad one. I’d say no more than six months ago. His ribs, right arm and shoulder also indicate that there were recently healed breaks there as well. There are several other scars on both his back and his legs that point to abuse, and I’m willing to bet that if we gave him a complete set of x-rays, we’d find several other signs of past broken bones or injuries. His entire demeanor all point to a history of abuse.
To return him to that environment, or to stick him in a group home with a bunch of big city, street wise kids, would be child abuse in and of itself … I just don’t think a group home is the answer for Billy Kennedy… Besides, you know he’ll only run off the first chance he gets, and he’ll be right back on the streets again anyway.”
“Surely you’re not suggesting we just turn him loose back onto the streets?”
“No … of course not. What I think the boy needs is some serious one on one attention in a good stable home with someone who will give him the love and sense of security he needs… and deserves. This boy has a lot of potential if someone would only give him half a chance.”
“I’ll take him home with me, Mrs. Weston. I’ll make sure he takes his medicine and he’ll get the one on one attention and caring that he needs. I’ll give him a safe and stable environment, and he can go to school and adjust slowly. I live out in the suburbs, so he’ll be out of the inner city as well.”
“Excuse me, Marian. But I think Billy might be better off with two parents who are a bit younger and more capable of handling a teenage boy. “
“On the contrary, Mrs. Weston. I think Mrs. Vaughn here would be a perfect fit for Billy. I think a nice quiet, stable home would give him the chance to integrate in with his peers at a slower and less intense atmosphere. In fact if you can get the court to approve, I’d be willing to release him into your custody Mrs. Vaughn… the problem is, getting the courts and Billy to agree to it. Nothing we do will benefit the boy, if he only stays long enough to run away again.”
“Well, the state would have to do a home inspection and a background check on you Mrs. Vaughn. But barring any issues on that front, I’d be willing to agree to that arrangement. I’m afraid not many families are willing to take on the responsibilities of taking in homeless teenage boys these days. Most families prefer the younger children or babies… I’ll get started on the paper work and the home inspection, so that we have everything in order before we go to court on Friday... Now the only problem left is convincing the boy to go… and remain in your custody without running away again.”
“Well, maybe we could enlist the help of that fireman… Jack Flynn. The boy seems to trust him well enough.”
It was at this moment that lunch trolley stopped outside Johnny’s door preventing him from hearing any more of the conversation. He quickly ran across the room and leapt into his bed. He had barely got the covers pulled up before the door opened and his lunch was brought in.
Johnny spent the entire afternoon going over the conversation he had overheard in his head. He wasn’t sure what to think about the situation. He certainly wasn’t looking forward to going in front of a judge … even if it was only family court. He also hated the fact that he had been made a ward of the state. Somehow it made him feel like he was some kind of criminal or a social deviant.
On the other hand, it did sound like the good Doctor and that woman, Marian, wanted to help him out. Would it really be so bad living with the woman? After all, he’d have a warm bed to sleep in and regular meals… and he could even go to school. Jack had said that there was no way he would be accepted at the fire academy without his high school diploma. And, come hell or high water, he was going to follow in Jack’s footsteps. From the very first moment that he’d witnessed the fireman in action, he knew that was what he wanted to do with his life. He couldn’t explain his reasons why. He only knew that something had been awoken deep in his soul the night of the warehouse fire, and he just instinctively knew that he had found his true calling.
The more Jack spoke to him about what the job entailed, the more excited he got about becoming a firefighter, but more specifically, a rescue man with the fire department. He wanted to make a difference for the good in peoples’ lives… and this was the way he wanted to do it.
He’d made a promise to his parents the day he had knelt in front of their graves to say good-bye … he’d promised them that he’d do something positive with his life. He knew in the core of his very being that this was the path he wanted to follow. His hand reached up toward his neck and he fingered the necklace underneath his hospital gown as he thought about the vow he’d made to his parents.
If he did agree to go live with this woman, he wouldn’t have to wait until he was eighteen and then try and go to night school to get his high school diploma. By staying with Marian he would be able to embark on his chosen career that much sooner. The only thing he didn’t understand was why. Why were these people so anxious to help him out? Why should they care what happened to him? What was in it for them?
Johnny had been left alone with his thoughts until the evening visiting hours. It was then that he was visited by a small group of people who gathered around his bedside. To say he found the ‘delegation’ intimidating would have been an understatement. The group consisted of Dr. Turner, Mrs. Weston, Marian Vaughn, the man they called Preacher from the youth mission and Jack Flynn.
He couldn’t help but feel like they were ganging up on him, and he suddenly felt angry and resentful at the fact that these people were trying to take over his life… even if they did want to help him out. Somehow he got the feeling they weren’t here to ask him to agree to their plan, it felt more like they were here to tell him that he had no choice but to agree to their plans.
“What is this? The committee to save the socially downtrodden?” he asked sarcastically.
“Please son, just hear us out before you dismiss us entirely. We have an idea we’d like to run by you and see what you think about it,” Jack said.
“Do I really have a choice in the matter?” he asked bitterly.
“No, not really,” Mrs. Weston answered with more than a hint of condescension in her voice.
It was at that moment that Jack stepped forward and spoke up.
“That’s not true son, in life you always have a choice. No matter where you get sent, you will still have to decide on whether or not you will stay and stick it out … or if you will turn tail and run. You’re old enough now to make up your own mind about these things, and we’re not naïve enough to realize that if you want to run… you’ll find a way to do it. But I’m asking you to at least hear us out before you dismiss us entirely, okay?”
Johnny nodded. The fact that Jack always shot from the hip without any bullshit was what Johnny liked best about the man. Suddenly the anger and resentment were gone, and Johnny was willing to hear them out.
“Okay, I’ll listen,” he answered.
“Good man,” Jack said with a nod of approval.
It was Dr. Turner who took the lead in the conversation. Basically the deal they laid out before Johnny was that he wouldn’t be sent to the state run group home if he would agree to go and live with Marian and become her ward. He would have to behave himself and not cause any trouble and go to school and get his high school diploma.
He would also have to agree to not runaway and remain with Marian until he was eighteen years of age. In return he would be guaranteed a safe home to live in where he would be treated like one of the family, and that Marian and the state would assume all of his financial needs until he was eighteen.
On top of that, they would provide him with a tutor to help him catch up academically to the other students his age. He would also be allowed to visit Jack down at the fire station anytime he wanted… he could even volunteer to help around the station on the weekends Jack was working… Jack would also act as a mentor for him. The only other condition would be that he would give them his real name, age and date of birth.
Johnny thought that the deal sounded pretty damn good to him, but he was still not sure about revealing his real name. What if they contacted his grandparents, and then his grandparents sent for him… simply out of spite?
Would they make him return to the reservation?
Finally he looked up at the group of people and asked them the sixty four thousand dollar question… Why?
“Why are you doing this? Why do you care? What’s in this for you? I mean I know that Dr. Turner and Mrs. Weston are just doing their jobs… but why should the rest of you care? I mean no offense, Mrs. Vaughn. But why would you want to take me into your home when you hardly even know me?”
Marian came forward and sat on the edge of his bed. “Do you believe in God, Billy?”
Johnny looked her in the eyes to try and see if she was serious. When their eyes met he could see that she was, in fact, being earnest and was actually expecting him to answer her question.
“Yes ma’am, it may surprise you to know that I do believe in God.”
“Well then you’ll understand when I say to you that I think I’m supposed to do this… that we’re both supposed to do this. I can’t explain it any further than that.”
Johnny lay back and pondered her answer. Was this meant to be? He certainly believed in Divine intervention. Time and time again he had survived when he shouldn’t have. He survived the car accident that took his parents’ lives, he survived the near fatal attack from his grandfather… and just last week he had survived the warehouse fire. Somehow he knew that there had to be a reason for it.
His gut instincts told him that this woman was right. He suspected that there was more than a grain of truth in her belief that these series of events had contrived to put him here at this exact moment in time, and that someday he would understand what that reason was…. And if that was the case, then he had his answer.
“Okay… I’ll do it. But I’m not sure about this whole giving you my name thing. How do I know you’re not going to send me back to the hell hole I finally escaped from? Or tell them where to find me?”
This time it was Mrs. Weston who spoke up. “Because I have talked to my supervisor and the court and we both agree that you are of an age where you should have some say in what happens here. We’re going to recommend to the judge that he awards Marian custody of you, and that you be made a ward of the state, thus removing any and all guardianship that anyone else may try and claim over you. No one wants to send you back into a situation that could be potentially harmful to you.”
“I still don’t know about the whole name thing,” Johnny replied nervously.
Jack came up and put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Look son, you’ve already stated that your desire is to join the fire academy as soon as you are old enough. You say you want to be a rescue man. It’s a fine ambition and a noble goal … but it’s also a man’s job, and only a certain kind of man is cut out for the job. And I know that if you’re half the man that I think you are, you’ll act like a man and take responsibility and control of your life. And part of that responsibility is to honour your part of the deal. You have to trust somebody sometime. Have I ever lied to you? Hell, son, I’m counting on you showing up at my station as a boot in a few years’ time. Nobody wants to hurt you son… we just want to help you. We’re trusting you to fulfill your part of the deal, so the least you could do is show us a little trust in return.”
Johnny looked down at the sheet covering his legs for a full minute before he sighed in resignation. Well in for a penny, in for a pound. Besides, if they were lying he could always run away again. But somehow his gut told him that these people were on the up and up.
He looked up at the group around him and sighed.
“My real name is John Roderick Gage. I’m sixteen years old. My parents were killed in a car accident six and a half years ago, when I was ten years old, and I was stuck in the worst hell hole you could ever imagine. I was born on August 28th 1950,” he said.
Everyone looked over when they heard Marian gasp. She bent down and took his hand in hers and smiled.
“I knew God had a hand in this…you see, I once had a son who was also born in August of 1950. Six and half years ago he and his father were killed in a car accident. Don’t you see, Billy… I mean John, God is giving us back a bit of something that we both lost… now I know for certain that we were supposed to meet. We were meant to find each other, John.”
Johnny wasn’t sure he’d go that far, but he was more than willing to give the credit to God. Mainly because there was a part of him that suspected it was the truth.
Johnny squeezed the woman’s hand back and smiled. “Johnny…” he said quietly.
“Pardon me?” she asked.
“Most folks just call me Johnny.”
“Well, Johnny,” said Doctor Turner. “It looks like everything is all settled.”
“Does that mean I can get out of here now?” Johnny asked hopefully.
“Well, not so fast. First we have to get you some clothes… then I’ll release you into Marian’s capable hands.”
“Well, sir,” Johnny said. “Down near the warehouse there is a store that is run by a Mr. Clarence Miller. I do odd jobs for him on Saturdays, and he has a store room and a safe. Most of my stuff is stored in his back store room. He’s also holding the money I have earned over the past few weeks for safe keeping.”
“I know Clarence,” Preacher said. “How about we get you some clothes to wear for now, and then Marian and I can take you down later and pick up the rest of your possessions and take them home.”
Johnny nodded his head and lay back against his pillows. ‘Home’…the word sure had a nice ring to it … Yes, he decided, this arrangement just might work out fine after all.
~ ~ ~
It had been six days since he had been released from the hospital to Marian Vaughn’s care, and Johnny had to admit that so far things were going pretty good. She had made him feel welcome, without crowding him too much. She was a good cook and she had even taken him out shopping for some decent clothes.
Gary Stead, or Preacher as most of the kids called him, had introduced him to a few of the kids at the youth mission. He had even enjoyed a few games of pool. Johnny was surprised to discover that for a preacher, Gary was a pretty good pool player.
Johnny was almost afraid to hope that things were finally going his way in life. When the morning of the scheduled hearing with the family court judge arrived, he couldn’t stop himself from pacing nervously across the living room.
Although everyone had assured him the proceedings were nothing more than a formality, he couldn’t help but worry.
During the last week, he had really set his hopes on the fact that he finally had a place to call home. For the first time in his life he was excited about going to school and graduating. He just had to get into the fire academy. Becoming a firefighter and a rescue man was all he could think about lately. The trouble was, he just couldn’t relax and trust that things would turn out fine. In his limited experience, nothing ever turned out fine for him.
Johnny sat nervously in the courtroom, on one side of him sat Marian and on the other side was Mrs. Weston. Both Preacher and Jack had shown up to the hearing for added moral support. He was wearing the new suit that Marian had taken him shopping for the day before, and he had spent the morning polishing his new dress shoes until he could see his reflection in them.
He was almost to the point of being physically sick with anticipation when the doors to the Judge’s chambers opened up and Justice Ronald P. Thompson entered the room. Johnny nervously rose to his feet and waited until they were told to be seated.
Judge Thompson was a tall bean pole of a man. He was thin and appeared to be in his fifties with salt and pepper hair. His face was serious, and sitting there in his black robes he looked stern and austere. It gave him an air of gravitas that one would expect from a man whose decisions could change the course of Johnny’s life. Just one glance from him made Johnny swallow nervously, and he straightened his suit and tie in an attempt to appear presentable.
For a long time, no one said anything as the judge opened up the file folder in front of him and read through the notes that were inside. He took his time and appeared to give the matter consideration. Finally after what seemed like hours to Johnny, he closed the folder and spoke.
“After reviewing the case and the medical records, as well as the reports by both Dr. Turner and Mrs. Weston from Social and Family services regarding the matter of the said minor, John Roderick Gage, I feel it is incumbent upon this court to make him a permanent ward of the State of California until his eighteenth birthday. I hereby grant legal guardianship of the said minor to Marian Louise Vaughn until that time…Would the said minor please rise before the Court?”
Johnny stood on shaking legs and faced the judge.
“John Roderick Gage, this court has taken into consideration that you are of an age to show your preference to live with Mrs. Vaughn, and it has so agreed to place you in the care of Mrs. Vaughn on the condition that you will attend school, remain under her supervision until your eighteenth birthday and abide by the laws of the state of California. Is this understood, Mr. Gage?”
“Yes sir,” Johnny answered meekly.
“Very good… I trust you will take advantage of this opportunity to the fullest.
This Court wishes you good luck in your new life here in California, Mr. Gage.”
He looked over and smiled at Johnny and then he closed the file in front of him with a definite air of finality.
“Court is adjourned,” Judge Thompson declared. And with a bang of his gavel, the judge rose to his feet and left the courtroom.
Johnny couldn’t believe how quickly the proceedings had been and he turned to look at Mrs. Weston.
“That’s it?” he asked.
“That’s it, Johnny… we tried to tell you this was nothing more than a formality.”
Johnny breathed a sigh of relief, as both Preacher and Jack back slapped him and congratulated him. Mrs. Weston shook his hand and excused herself and left the happy group to celebrate.
“Well folks, how about I take everyone out to dinner to celebrate?” Jack said.
“Sounds good to me,” said Marian. She turned to face Johnny and patted his shoulder. “Well, it looks like we’re officially a foster family now, Johnny.”
“Looks like it, Mrs. Vaughn,” Johnny answered with a smile.
Marian shook her head. “Mrs. Vaughn was my mother, Johnny. I’d rather you called me Marian.”
Johnny frowned and looked thoughtful. “I can’t do that, ma’am. One of the things my folks instilled upon me was that a kid never addressed an adult by their first name. My mom would be disappointed to think I was walking around calling you by your first name… maybe, if you didn’t mind, I could call you Aunt Marian instead?” he said shyly.
Marian’s eyes welled up with tears as she pulled him into an affectionate hug.
“I’d be honored if you’d called me Aunt Marian, Johnny .”
Gary and Jack shifted their feet awkwardly as they looked upon the scene before them. Finally Jack couldn’t stand it any longer and he finally spoke up.
“Well if you guys are done hugging on each other, we can go eat? I don’t know about you, but I am starving.”
Johnny and Marian broke apart and laughed as they turned toward the fireman. “Sounds good to me sir, let’s go.” Johnny laughed, as the happy group left the courthouse.
~ ~ ~
It had been four months since Johnny had come to live with Marian, and he couldn’t have been happier with the way things had turned out. It seemed that Johnny was both an eager student as well as a quick learner, and with the help of a private tutor, he had easily caught up with the other kids in his class. Not only that, it seemed that all those years of running from bullies on the reservation had paid off, and he was currently his high school’s number one track star. He had also joined the school newspaper and had even made a friend named Drew Burke, who also worked on the paper with him.
It was almost the end of the school year, and Johnny had just walked through the door from track practice, when he was met by Marian at the front door.
“There’s a large package in your bedroom that arrived in the mail for you today, Johnny,” she informed him.
“A package … for me?” Johnny couldn’t imagine who on Earth would be sending him anything in the mail. He really didn’t know that many people in Los Angeles yet.
He walked into his bedroom and looked at the large box sitting on the floor. He tried to see who had sent it, but the return address was written in marker and had gotten wet and smudged, making it impossible to make out the sender’s name. Finally he just ripped the packing tape off and opened the flaps on the box.
His jaw fell open and he sank down upon the bed as he reached in and pulled out the top item of the contents.
“It’s beautiful, Johnny,” Marian said quietly.
“My mom made it for me a long time ago,” Johnny answered almost reverently as he pulled out the quilt and spread it across his bed.
As he unfolded the quilt a letter fell out from its folds and floated down onto the floor.
Johnny reached down and grabbed the letter. He slowly opened it up and read its contents. “It’s from Vaska and Stojce in Montana,” he explained. “They always said that as soon as I got settled they’d send my things to me… I guess with so much going on here, I kinda forgot about it.”
He set the letter down on his bed and reached inside the box. He carefully withdrew a sterling silver picture frame, and gazed down at the people in the picture. Marian came up behind him and looked over his shoulder at the photo.
“You had a lovely family, Johnny,” she whispered.
Johnny wiped a tear from his cheek as he held onto the photograph. “This was just after my tenth birthday… they died just a couple weeks after this picture was taken.”
Neither Marian nor Johnny said anything else for several minutes, until finally Marian said, “Supper’s just about ready, I’ll just go on out to the kitchen and finish it up,” and she turned and walked back out toward the kitchen.
Johnny pulled himself out of his reverie and smiled to himself. He knew he would always miss his parents, but he got the definite feeling, as he looked into their faces that were staring back up at him from the photograph, that they would be pleased with how everything had turned out for him here in California. He reached down and cleared off a spot on his nightstand large enough to hold the silver framed photograph.
He stood up and set the picture on his nightstand with great care, and stared at it for a few seconds. He reached out and touched the front of the photo with his fingers and whispered, “I did it, Mama, I did it, Papa… I made it out. And I promise you, I’m gonna be a firefighter, and I’m gonna rescue people. I promise you both. I’m going to make you proud of me.”
It was just then that Aunt Marian’s voice floated through his bedroom door. “It’s time to wash up for supper Johnny….”
“Coming, Aunt Marian,” he called back.
He took one final glance back at the photograph on the nightstand, and smiled to himself as he walked out of the room and closed the door behind him.
John Roderick Gage was finally home.
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